4. Transfer of Copyright and Third Party Copyright

The laws of many countries provide that the initial rights owner in a work may transfer all economic rights to a third party (moral rights, being personal to the author, can never be transferred).  Authors may sell the rights to their works to individuals or companies best able to market the works, in return for payment.

These payments are often made dependent on the actual use of the work, and are then referred to as royalties.  Transfers of copyright may take one of two forms: assignments and licences.

Under an assignment, the rights owner transfers the right to authorise or prohibit certain acts covered by one, several, or all rights under copyright.  An assignment is a transfer of a property right.  So if all rights are assigned, the person to whom the rights were assigned becomes the new owner of copyright.

As well as owning copyright works, a person may wish to make use of someone else's copyright protected works.  There are certain very specific situations where people may be permitted to do so without seeking permission from the owner.  A person would not normally need to seek permission if they wish to use less than a substantial part of a copyright protected work.  However, courts define ‘substantial part’ as a qualitatively significant part of a work even where this is not a large part of the work.  Therefore, it is quite likely that even a small portion of the whole work will still be a substantial part and permission may need to be sought.

If a person’s use of copyrighted work does not fall within these exceptions, they may consider buying the copyright or, as is more usually the case, obtaining a licence from the owner for their agreed use.

Locating the copyright owner can sometimes be difficult but failure to get permission may result in legal action against the user.

[Extracts from 'Intellectual Property Office' website]


  • Since you own the copyright to your intellectual property, only you can decide whether to retain it or transfer it to third parties.  RCUK and The Wellcome Trust, as well as some other funders, ask you to retain the copyright of your work so that you can give others permission to use them.
  • Do not forget that, when you use others' work in your research, you are using the intellectual properties of other people and they own the copyright to their work as you own the copyright to your own work.  You may need to seek the owners of these work and ask permission to use these work in your research unless there are explicit permissions (licences) attached to these works.