Copyright Law 101
What is Copyright?
Copyright is, literally, the “right to copy.” Copyright is comprised of a bundle of exclusive rights, including:
- Reproducing (e.g., photographing, scanning and digitizing)
- 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 or exhibiting
- Adapting (e.g., a book into a movie script)
- Publicly communicating
It is only the owner of the copyright who may do these things or authorize others to do so.
Copyright Law is a complicated area of the law. The information here sets out copyright law basics in a very general and broad manner. You will need to refer to the copyright law in your own country to obtain specific information on what rights and privileges exist in the copyright law that applies to you and your creations, and how to legally use the content of others.
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 law protects literary, artistic, dramatic, and musical works, as well as sound recordings, videos and films. It protects such diverse things as work documents, print and e-books, images, translations, website content, sculptures, and films.
However, copyright does not protect ideas; it protects only the embodiments of these ideas.
International Copyright Law
In at least 172 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.
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 172 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. Test your knowledge of international copyright law.
Duration of Copyright Law Protection
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. If you created works in the course of employment, it is likely that your employer owns those employment related works.
Ownership of Copyright-Protected Materials
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.