Copyright is, literally, the “right to copy.” Copyright is comprised of a bundle of rights, including reproducing (e.g., photocopying, photographing, scanning into a computer), performing in public (e.g., at a concert), publishing in print (e.g., in a book) or in an electronic format (e.g., on the internet), publicly displaying, adapting (e.g., a book into a movie script), translating, publicly communicating, and broadcasting. It is only the owner of the copyright who may do these things or authorize others to do so.
Copyright is one of the five traditional areas of intellectual property (IP) law, which includes patents, trademarks, industrial designs, and confidential information/trade secrets. Each type of IP protects a different kind of creation or a different aspect of a creation, and each type provides its own special set of rules of protection.
Copyright law protects many different elements in the cultural, information, content, and technology industries. Using more statutory language, copyright protects literary, artistic, dramatic, and musical works, as well as sound recordings, videos, and films. It protects such diverse things as interoffice memorandums, print and e-books, images, translations, website content, sculptures, and films. However, it does not protect ideas; it protects only the embodiments of these ideas.
In at least 168 countries around the world, including Canada and the U.S., copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work (i.e., once the work is in some sort of tangible form): this means that no registration or deposit with a government copyright office is required in order to have copyright protection. There are, however, voluntary government registration systems where copyright owners can register their works thereby gaining entitlement to certain benefits, especially in cases of copyright infringements of their works. Similarly, the use of the copyright symbol is not mandatory in many countries, yet using the symbol — © — is always a good reminder to the public that copyright exists in a work.
The duration of copyright is determined by the copyright statute in each country. For example, in Canada the general duration of copyright is life-plus-fifty (it lasts for fifty years after the author’s death); in the U.S. it is life-plus-seventy. Specific works and circumstances may result in deviations from these general rules of copyright duration. Once copyright in a work has expired, that work is said to be in the public domain.
Generally, the first owner of copyright in a work is its author. An author is usually the person who first fixes a work or puts it in a tangible form, such as in writing, saved digitally, or recorded.
Copyright protection gives authors exclusive use of their works and protects the paternity and integrity (i.e., the moral rights) of the author. Neighboring rights protect the rights of performers (for example, actors and musicians), record producers, and broadcasters. Neighboring rights are rights akin to copyright, but they are distinct from copyright.
The owner of the copyright in a work may license (give temporary permission) or assign (give permanent permission) to others the right to use or own that copyright-protected work. When granting permission, the copyright owner may grant the full bundle of rights that comprise the work’s copyright or he may grant permission for only some of the rights. The fee for the use of a copyright-protected work and the nature of the rights that are granted are usually matters to be negotiated between the copyright owner and user of the right(s).
Copyright law provides for certain instances in which the consumer (i.e., user) of the copyright-protected work does not have to obtain permission or pay for that use. Many copyright statutes contain specific exceptions for certain personal uses, limited educational uses, and some library and archives uses (the latter often for purposes of preservation and interlibrary loan). In addition, the U.S. Copyright Act has a fair use provision, and the copyright laws of many Commonwealth countries have a fair dealing provision—these are defenses in the law for usages of copyright-protected works that would otherwise be considered infringements of copyrights.
There is no one international copyright law. Each country has its own copyright laws. However, based on what is known as the principle of national treatment, and through the mechanism of copyright treaties, the citizens of many countries throughout the world are afforded copyright protection in countries other than their own. For example, each one of the 146 countries belonging to the Berne Convention (the leading international copyright treaty) automatically provides citizens from other member countries with, at a minimum, the same copyright protections it provides for its own citizens.
Copyright law is a complicated area. This information sets out copyright law basics in a very general and broad manner. Refer to the copyright laws in your country to obtain specific information on how copyright operates in your country.