Copyright Basics

Copyright is, literally, the “right to copy.”  Copyright is comprised of a bundle of rights, including:

  • Reproducing (e.g., 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 or exhibiting
  • Adapting (e.g., a book into a movie script)
  • Translating
  • Publicly communicating
  • Broadcasting

It is only the owner of the copyright who may do these things or authorize others to do so.

Copyright Law and Intellectual Property

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.

copyright basics

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 what rights and privileges exist in the copyright laws in your country.

In at least 171 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.

content ownership

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.

US Copyright Law

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 168 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.

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  1. Lesley says:

    Hi Lucy, this is not a legal opinion. It’s best to assume that all content is protected by copyright unless you know otherwise. If you read through the basics of copyright, you will be able to answer your own questions.

  2. Lucy says:

    Years ago I was told that a company’s annual reports and press releases can be distributed internally in full text at another company or shared on another company’s collaboration software without permission provided the material was obtained directly from the first company’s website – i.e., not by way of any intermediary source such as a news agency, content aggregator, trade publication, newspaper, etc. The person who said this added that companies more or less expect other firms to do this in spite there being a copyright mark at the end of the annual report or press release. I now believe this isn’t correct. First, have you heard this before? And, second, is it inaccurate? Thanks,

  3. Lesley says:

    Hi Rick, it is best to have a clearly written agreement between your club members and club stating something to the effect that it is not the responsibility of the club if any of the posted images are used without permission.

  4. Lesley says:

    Hi Aretta, copyright laws in different countries allow different free uses or exceptions from obtaining permission from the copyright holder. Check the Copyright Act in your country to see what it allows for religious organizations. Do not assume that all uses are free.

  5. Aretta says:

    Is it okay for churches to photocopy music, publish the words of the songs in the weekly bulletin, and sing them during the worship service without getting permission to do so?

  6. Rick Tomalty says:

    Hello, My Montreal based camera club wants to post its members images on line on our club site. There is opposition from some directors because they don’t want any liability if the images are stolen from the site. Is it enough to get permission from the members to post their pictures. We would put a warning on the site stating that all the pictures are copyrighted?

  7. Lesley says:

    Hi Julie, if copyright still exists in her poems, then you need permission to reproduce them.

  8. Julie Abbott says:

    I would like to include a poem by Mary Oliver in the front pages of a novel. I see her poems reproduced widely. How do I proceed?

  9. Lesley says:

    Hi Scott, this table will help you determine the duration of copyright in the photo:

  10. Scott Whitmore says:

    I would like to use an old photo image of a 1950s postcard on the cover of my next novel. I found the postcard on a nostalgia blog and have attempted to contact the blogger but to no avail. Given it is a commercial item, has the copyright expired if it was produced in the 1950s?

  11. Lesley says:

    Hi Eileen, you should assume that images found online are protected by copyright. To determine whether you need permission, read “Obtaining Copyright Permission to Use Digital and Online Content” at

  12. Eileen Enterline says:

    My church is having an art fair with the historic school house across the street in April. We are creating posters that feature a Rockwell painting image (of two children on a schoolyard swing) that I downloaded from a website named, May I use it on the 25 or so posters in our local area to publicize our art fair this year?

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