UK Copyright Considerations for Records of Public Bodies


UK Copyright Considerations for Records of Public Bodies

Alex Coles

March 2011

Note: Copyright restrictions will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction - the article deals with the United Kingdom.

When considering what you can and can't publish or republish as part of your one-place study, whether online or via other means of distribution, the question of copyright will arise. This article clarifies the position with regards to the records of public bodies in the U.K.

"Public records" is defined by the Public Records Act 1958 and refers to those records of central government and courts of law deposited in a record office in the United Kingdom and open for public inspection. The term "unpublished" means unpublished at the time they were deposited. The majority of the records dealt with in this article are unpublished literary works created prior to 1 August 1989, and Crown copyright therefore expires the later of 125 years after creation or 31 December 2039. Until then, we are bound by copyright law.

Broadly speaking, use of the contents of records has different rules to use of the images of records (and for images, note that there is a distinction between obtaining copies, using copies and publishing copies). If you are accessing copies (eg digital scans or microfilms) of the documents from other than the original place of deposit, then you should ensure you know where those the original documents are held, along with their archive reference.


The census returns were produced by officers of the Crown in the course of their duties, and are therefore subject to Crown Copyright. In practice this copyright is managed by The National Archives.

However this copyright, as with all Crown copyright for unpublished public records, has been waived for the contents of the census returns. They are therefore reproducible without gaining formal permission, acknowledging the copyright or paying a fee. However The National Archives guidelines state that "you should acknowledge the fact that we hold the original document and give the archive reference". This should be standard practice for all materials we may use as part of our one-place studies. This waiving of the copyright of the contents means we are free to transcribe, index, extract and publish the information in the census returns.

Crown copyright has not been waived for the images of the census returns. If you wish to publish these, you must get formal permission from The National Archives' Image Library and pay a fee.

You should carefully read any additional terms and conditions that may be imposed by the provider that you are using to access the images of the census returns in order to make your transcriptions of the contents. Reproduction of those providers' own transcriptions and indices will almost certainly be forbidden.

Birth, Death and Marriage Certificates

The content of certificates of the civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages is specifically excluded from the definiton of public records. The logic behind this is that they are a simple collection of facts for which no compilation skill is required, and therefore copyright cannot exist. This means we are free to transcribe and publish the information contained on these certificates, with the exception of those certificates containing personal data about any living individual (restricted by the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998).

Note however that the physical layout of civil registration certificates in England, Wales, Scotland and Northen Ireland is Crown copyright material. You are authorised to reproduce this layout as long as you are not using these reproductions to provide official evidence of the event, advertise or promote a particular product/service, imply endorsement by HM Government, and only reproduce the Royal Arms or departmental logos as an integral part of the certificate.

Court Records

Records of court, for example quarter sessions and assize courts, are also unpublished public records under Crown copyright, and the contents can therefore be freely transcribed and published along with an acknowledgement of the place of deposit and the archive reference. This place may be a local record office, rather than The National Archives. Each record office can place its own restrictions on the use of images of those documents.

Wills and Probate

Acts of probate (eg probate clauses and letters of administration found in The National Archive PROB record series) are Crown copyright.

Wills and codicils themselves were originally copyright to the testator, and this copyright passes down to their heirs. If you are a descendant of someone inheriting in the will then you hold the copyright - if not, then technically you need the permission of the descendants.

More Information

For more information, visit The National Archives copyright page, where there are a number of guidelines to download and contact details should you require any clarification. If you have any experiences or information to share on this topic, please email us so that this article can be updated.

The author of this work retains all rights and must be credited when the material is displayed or shared. Any use of the material for commercial purposes requires the written consent of the author, as does any use of a significant portion of the material for purposes other than individual private research.