• Clara Harrison

Art Pot x Law Review: Copyright and the Printing Press

While the majority of laws in the United Kingdom focus on defending and protecting people and the corporeal, copyright law throughout its history has been focused on the intangible protection of artistic ideas. As the British Library explains, UK copyright law protects a wide range of art and literature, from novels and technical plans to sculpture and music. This protection grants the creator of said artwork the freedom to develop their ideas without the threat of it being recreated by others; it is, in essence, their artistic licence.


The rapidly changing nature of artistic trends combined with the development of new technologies means that copyright law in the UK is forced to evolve at a much faster rate than other legal divisions. Its history, though short, is a unique and complex one which has seen the emphasis shift from originally protecting publishing corporations to, today, focusing on the defence of the artist and their ideas.

It is largely accepted that the practice of creating and distributing art in some form or another is a timeless one, making it perhaps surprising that the British legal system was not equipped to protect such works until the 18th century. Many argue that it was the development of the printing press in the late 15th century that eventually led to the making of such laws, which originally only applied to written literature, as it suddenly became possible for a large number of copies of a novel or play or to be reproduced at one time.


The introduction of the first UK copyright laws in 1710, known as “the statue of Anne”, meant that such creative works could not be reproduced by a rival publishing house. Nowadays, it is recognised that this initial step did little to protect the author of a creative work and actually acted only as a means of profit for its publishers. However, it was this foundational idea that has been built upon throughout history to establish the concept of copyright which recognised both colloquially and legally today.

Notably, the Copyright Act 1956 was a monumental reform to copyright law in the UK and marked the end of a complex series of alterations to such legislation throughout the 20th century. It is this landmark Act which began to recognise the rights of the creator to their own work by stating that the possession of a piece of art belongs to them and not to their publisher. The new set of laws stated that a creative work will be protected until 50 years after the death of its author and cannot legally be reproduced by any other individual during this time.


Whilst these were undoubtedly positive reforms, the Act was still limited in the sense that it recognised only literary and dramatic works as legitimate art forms, and applied only to artists who were British nationals. This left a large portion of creatives and their respective artforms without legal protection, meaning that the Act quickly became outdated.

It is, therefore, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which forms the basis of the copyright law that is recognised in the UK today. Under this Act, the content of an artistic work can be protected for up to 70 years after the death of its author or creator. Crucially, this Act differs from its 1956 predecessor by granting the author of a creative work moral rights, seeking not only to protect an artistic piece but also its creator. Such moral rights grant creatives the right to be identified as the author of their work and to object to any derogatory treatment or false attributions. In addition to this, the amended Act also gives performers the right to legally protect their work, acting as a clear example of UK law embracing the expanding boundaries of the creative industries which it represents.

Such a brief examination of these three reforms to UK copyright law fails to portray the turbulence of its history – especially throughout the 20th century as literacy rates increased, leading to a greater demand for written literature throughout society. Even in such a short snapshot, however, it is clear the battle creatives have endured to ensure the protection not only of their work but also of themselves and their livelihoods. Today, UK law has made positive steps towards recognising the importance of the rights of such artists in both a financial and ethical sense, although always it may be the case that the defence of an intangible idea is one fated to spark debate and conflict.



This article is part of a collaborative series with publication Art Pot which aims to show how law and art have, and continue to be, interconnected. Read Art Pot's exploration of artistic copyright here.