Accessibility and Copyright

Copyright laws are intended to incentivise the creation of books, journals, art, music, software and other forms of creative expression. They give the author of a protected work certain exclusive rights, most notably the right to authorise copying and communication of their works to others. Because copyright typically exists for 70 years following the death of the author, much of the content that people interact with online is protected by copyright. This includes websites, social media services and the contents of online databases.

In order to get lawful access to copyright-protected material you must either have the permission of the copyright owner or rely on an exception to copyright as defined in the legislation (in the UK this is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988). In the UK there are a number of exceptions for accessibility which allow changes to be made to copyright-protected material without the copyright owner’s permission.

Permission from a copyright holder usually comes in the form or a licence. This may be written in the terms of use of a website or a database. It might also come in the form of a Creative Commons Licence. These are licences which allow permissive reuse and in some cases adaptation of online content. However, there are instances where licence may provide permission to access content, but not in a form that is accessible to all.

In the UK it is permissible to make accessible copies in certain circumstances. For more information see the CopyrightUser exceptions for disability page.

Copyright and the mainstreaming of accessible learning technologies: working towards a good practice model that balances legal risk with access need.

Providing disabled people with access to resources is an essential aspect of inclusive practice. Not all people have the same needs, and not all resources are in a format that everybody can access. Technologies such as SensusAccess and Blackboard Ally enable the format shifting of textual documentation for those with print disabilities. Speech to text technologies such as Otter AI and YouTube subtitling are widely used for peoplw with hearing impairments and this is only set to improve with the rollout of the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (2018) (PSBAR) which obligates public sector bodies to provide accessible content by design for the benefit of everyone.

However, the act of adapting resources protected by copyright is not technically permitted without the permission of the copyright holder or unless specific copyright exceptions apply. Copyright exceptions enacted in 2014 to support those with disabilities were welcomed (MacMullen, 2014), but only provide a legal defence to people whose “disability prevents [them] from enjoying the work to substantially the same degree as a person who does not have that disability” (CDPA, 1988). This has been supported at an international level by the agreement of the Marrakesh Treaty in 2013 (WIPO). Despite these positive developments, public sector bodies still face the issue that mainstreaming of accessible technology is good for everyone and is required by accessibility regulations, nevertheless brings with it the risk of legal action for copyright infringement.

The University of Kent is seeking to work through issues of accessible content and legal risk. This includes:

  • The mainstreaming of accessible information delivery; including the University-wide rollout of Blackboard Ally for all students regardless of print disability status. This builds on the work already undertaken to offer SensusAccess for all staff and students, avoiding white lists and trusting users to act responsibly in accordance with a copyright disclaimer attached to each service.
  • Application of a risk-managed approach to copyright when providing accessible resources. This follows the creation of a copyright policy in 2014 which specifically acknowledged that staff and students may legitimately use material in certain circumstances even when explicit permission from the copyright holder had not been received.
  • Development of a copyright literacy strategy which explicitly addresses accessibility. This strategic approach to copyright education involves aligning formal and informal responses to copyright issues with the institution’s strategic objectives.

Resources and References

Policy Connect. (2018). Accessible VLEs – Making the most of the new regulations. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 7 March, 2020].

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988). [Accessed 29 April 2020]

Lexdis Digital Accessibility Toolkit (Accessibility and Copyright) [Accessed 29 April 2020]

MacMullen, R. (2015) Beyond the lens to the new disability exceptions: additional needs and authorised bodies. Library and Information Research 39

Morrison, C. (2019) Introducing the Kent Copyright Literacy Strategy [Accessed 29 April 2020]

UK Government (2018) Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations [Accessed 29 April 2020]

Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, WIPO (2013) 

University of Kent Copyright Policy (2016) [Accessed 29 April 2020]