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Short Guide to Copyright for Book Authors*

In simple terms -

copyright is the right to copy.

Often, as soon as someone mentions copyright, some panic while others simply ignore it. This is largely because it is so misunderstood. As an author, you need to keep in mind that as soon as something is written – in a book, journal, online and even when unpublished – rights are assigned to it.

Who owns copyright? Usually, the first owner is the author. Copyright to your work is automatic and depending on where you live, it can last anywhere between 50 and 75 years.

We often hear: I am the author and I can publish it anywhere I like.

True. As owner of the copyright, you have the exclusive right to decide how your work is reproduced, distributed and displayed.

However. Once you become part of an agreement (usually a book or journal contract) that authorizes others to do this on your behalf, whoever you assign this to first will hold the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute and sell and publicly display your work for the duration of that agreement. This is known as the Publishing Right - which should not be confused with Intellectual Property Right which you will always retain as author. This prevents others from reproducing, adapting or distributing and selling your work, including on the internet, without consent. But. It also prevents you from doing the same!

For example: if you have finished your PhD thesis and have, along the way, signed a contract with a journal publisher to reproduce one of the book chapters, you have granted them exclusive right to reproduce, distribute and sell and make public your chapter. This precludes the possibility of others (including you and, even, if they are yet to publish your chapter) from the doing the same without their express permission. Where you contract your work first, really matters.

Our Essential Advice

It is your responsibility to seek written permission for any work in copyright, and also to settle any relevant fees, which can take considerable time to process. Start the application process early, as soon as you know which material you want to include. Permissions must be received before the text can be submitted to the publisher for production. They cannot begin any aspect of the work on your book, including text editing, with permissions outstanding.

We suggest that you keep the use of copyright material to a minimum to save time and costs with applying for permission and seek to discuss material in your text rather than reproduce it. Consider whether illustrations are essential given that you will always need permission to reproduce visual material for which you do not hold copyright. If the illustration is available on the Internet, you could consider providing a link to it instead.

A point to remember is that it is usually the publisher rather than the author of the material that you need to contact. Also, the copyright of an image or figure may be held by someone other than the author of the source material so double check the acknowledgements line to be sure.

You will need to request English language non-exclusive worldwide rights including print and electronic editions. We have a handy permission request form available to our authors. If the publisher asks you to supply information about the price and print run of your book, please consult your publisher. If you do not receive a reply from the copyright holder, you cannot presume that you can reproduce the material.

Fair-dealing Convention

This can be tricky. Under the convention known as `fair dealing’ (or ‘fair use’ in the US) for the purposes of criticism or review, permission need not always be sought for short extracts provided that the material is quoted in the context of scholarly review and not simply to adorn the text. It should also be accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement.

It is an essential prerequisite of this type of fair dealing that the copyright work has been previously published. If the work is unpublished, it cannot be fair dealt for criticism or review.

Copyright is infringed if a substantial part of the work is used. This is often a qualitative rather than a quantitative measure. There is no infringement if the extent of the quotation is no more than is required by the specific purpose for which it is used.


Any quotation (however short) from song lyrics must be cleared. Epigraphs are quotations which appear on their own at the beginning of a book or chapter. When used in this way, they are considered decoration and not covered by the fair-dealing rule unless being used for scholarly review in the text which follows. So be careful when using them as decoration as you will need to seek permission.


There is no fair-dealing/fair-use rule when it comes to illustrations – you will always need to clear permission to reproduce visual material. It is always important to read the accompanying rights.

Material from Websites

If a figure (and/or text or data) has been taken from the Internet, or ‘public domain’, this does not mean that it is not under copyright. You will need to check the source in detail, as even free-to-use material requires specific credit lines to be used. This applies, in particular, to government sites such as the MoD or the DoD which, in most cases, require acknowledgement of the photographer and/or the copyright holder e.g. Crown Copyright.


If a table is copied exactly from a previously published source, you will need permission to reproduce it. However, only the format can be under copyright, not the data itself. Therefore, if you alter the format of the table, e.g. the wording or the order of the columns, the problem is avoided.


Fonts can have copyright issues too. You will need to supply any written documentation such as purchase or licence agreements for some fonts. Bear in mind that not all licenses for fonts cover both print and electronic usage. Usage rules must be checked to ensure they cover the embedding of the font in an electronic product.

Defamation and Libel

Do not make any defamatory or injurious statement about living persons, institutions or other organizations that could result in libel claims.


If you copy all or part of someone else’s work without crediting them, then you are plagiarizing, even if you amend the original wording. If you use someone else’s work, whether a person or an organization, you must make it clear that you have done so.

Military/Government Personnel

Personnel – serving, reserve, civil servant, contractor and sometimes retired – you must check with the appropriate governing body as to whether you need to seek permission to publish your Work.

For the Ministry of Defence, please refer to the authorization procedures in Defence Instruction Notice 2016DIN03-029 issued by the Directorate of Defence Communications.

For the Department of Defense, please refer to this site:

For other nations, please refer to your respective government departments responsible for defence communications.


When permission has been granted, keep the correspondence on file and send a copy of the paperwork to your publisher when delivering your text. Be sure to include any details of terms and clearly label the paperwork so it matches the final text (for example, ‘Permission for Figure 2.1’).

Any required acknowledgements should be included in your preface, a separate acknowledgements page or a footnote, using the language specified by the permission-granting institution. Sources of images should be correctly cited in your corresponding preliminary lists and with the caption in the main body of the text if required by the copyright holder.

Legal Deposits

Probably what you don’t know, is that publishers are legally bound to send a copy of the print edition of your book to Legal Deposit Offices. As we are a British based publisher, this is the British Library. This has existed in British law since 1662. If your publisher publishes and sells in the US (as we do), then they are legally bound to send two copies to the Library of Congress Copyright Office. Plus, we also send a copy to each of the 5 additional deposit libraries: National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales, Bodleian Libraries at University of Oxford, Cambridge University Library and the Library at Trinity College Dublin. Your book will be available from any of these libraries.

*This guide is intended as a starting point only and not formal legal advice which should be sought from a qualified copyright professional. This guide is focused on authors writing books.


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