Copyright. Me?

Possibly, yes.

Certainly, if you’ve ever created anything.

Copyright is a legal concept giving the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it, usually for a limited time.

Generally, it is “the right to copy”.

It also gives the copyright holder the right to be credited for the work, to determine who may adapt the work to other forms, who may perform the work, who may financially benefit from it, and other related rights.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property (like the patent, the trademark, and the trade secret) applicable to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete.

It is intended to promote the creation of new works, by giving authors control of and profit from them.

Copyrights are said to be territorial, which means that they do not extend beyond the territory of a specific state unless that state is a party to an international agreement.

Most countries are parties to at least one such agreement.

Typically, the duration of copyright is the whole life of the creator plus fifty to a hundred years from the creator’s death – or a finite period for anonymous or corporate creations.

Most jurisdictions recognize copyright in any completed work, without formal registration.

Most also recognize copyright limitations, allowing “fair” exceptions to the creator’s exclusivity of copyright, and giving users certain rights.

Generally, copyright is enforced as a civil matter, though some jurisdictions do apply criminal sanctions.

What Kinds of Creation Does It Cover?

Specifics vary by jurisdiction, but these can include poems, theses, plays, novels, literary works, movies, dances, musical compositions, audio recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, software, radio and television broadcasts, and industrial designs.

Graphic designs and industrial designs may have separate or overlapping laws applied to them in some jurisdictions.

In Australia and the United Kingdom it has been held that a single word is insufficient to comprise a copyright work. However, single words or a short string of words can sometimes be registered as a trademark instead.

Copyright law recognizes the right of an author based on whether the work actually is an original creation, rather than whether it is unique.

Two authors may own copyright on two substantially identical works, if it is determined that the duplication was coincidental, and neither was copied from the other.

Copyright does not cover ideas and information themselves, only the form or manner in which they are expressed.

For example, the copyright to a Mickey Mouse cartoon restricts others from making copies of the cartoon or creating derivative works based on Disney’s particular mouse, but does not prohibit the creation of other works about anthropomorphic mice in general – so long as they are different enough to not be judged copies of Mickey.

© That Symbol?

Prior to 1989, use of a copyright notice – consisting of the copyright symbol (©, the letter C inside a circle), the abbreviation “Copr.”, or the word “Copyright”, followed by the year of the first publication of the work and the name of the copyright holder – was part of US statutory requirements.

Several copyright years may be noted if the work has gone through substantial revisions.

The proper copyright notice for recordings of musical or other audio works is a sound recording copyright symbol ((p), the letter p inside a circle), which indicates a sound recording copyright, with the letter p indicating a “phonorecord”.

Similarly, the phrase All rights reserved was once required to assert copyright.

In 1989 the United States enacted the Berne Convention Implementation Act, amending the 1976 Copyright Act to conform to most of the provisions of the Berne Convention.

As a result, the use of copyright notices has become optional to claim copyright, because the Berne Convention makes copyright automatic.

However, the lack of notice of copyright using these marks may have consequences in terms of reduced damages in an infringement lawsuit.

Using notices of this form may reduce the likelihood of a defense of “innocent infringement” being successful.

Obtaining Copyright

In all countries where the Berne Convention standards apply, copyright is automatic, and need not be obtained through official registration with any government office.

Once an idea has been reduced to tangible form, eg. by securing it in a fixed medium such as a drawing, sheet music, photograph, videotape, or computer file, the copyright holder is entitled to enforce his or her exclusive rights.

While registration isn’t needed to exercise copyright, in jurisdictions where the laws provide for registration, it serves as prima facie evidence of a valid copyright and enables the copyright holder to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

In the USA, for example, registering after an infringement only enables you to receive actual damages and lost profits.

The original holder of the copyright may be the employer of the author rather than the author himself, if the work is a “work for hire”.

For example, in English law the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides that if a copyrighted work is made by an employee in the course of that employment, the copyright is automatically owned by the employer – which would be a “Work for Hire.”


Copyrights are generally enforced by the holder in a civil law court, but there are also criminal infringement statutes in some jurisdictions.

Central registries are kept in some countries which aid in proving claims of ownership.

But registering does not necessarily prove ownership, nor does the fact of copying (even without permission) necessarily prove that copyright was infringed.

Copyright may also be licensed.

Some jurisdictions may provide that certain classes of copyrighted works be made available under a prescribed statutory license (eg. musical works in the United States used for radio broadcast or performance).

This is also called a compulsory license, because under this scheme, anyone who wishes to copy a covered work does not need the permission of the copyright holder, but instead merely files the proper notice and pays a set fee established by statute (or by an agency decision under statutory guidance) for every copy made.

Failure to follow the proper procedures would place the copier at risk of an infringement suit.

Criminal sanctions are generally aimed at serious counterfeiting activity, but are now becoming more commonplace as copyright collectives such as the RIAA are increasingly targeting the file sharing home Internet user.

A Hoary Old Ruse

A widely circulated strategy to avoid the cost of copyright registration is referred to as the “poor man’s copyright”.

This proposes that the creator send the work to him / herself in a sealed envelope by registered mail, using the postmark to establish the date.

This technique has not been recognized in any published opinions of the United States courts.

The United States Copyright Office makes it clear that the technique is no substitute for actual registration.

The United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office discusses the technique but does not recommend its use.

Sorry, people; you’re going to have to pay, if the law requires it.

Exclusive Rights?

The phrase “exclusive right” means that only the copyright holder is free to exercise those rights, and others are prohibited from using the work without the holder’s permission.

Several exclusive rights typically attach to the holder of a copyright:

*to produce copies or reproductions of the work and to sell those copies (including, typically, electronic copies)

*to import or export the work

*to create derivative works (works that adapt the original work)

*to perform or display the work publicly

*to sell or assign these rights to others

*to transmit or display by radio or video

All Rights Reserved?

A copyright, or aspects of it, may be assigned or transferred from one party to another.

For example, a musician who records an album will often sign an agreement with a record company in which the musician agrees to transfer all copyright in the recordings, in exchange for royalties and other considerations.

The creator (original copyright holder) benefits, or expects to, from production and marketing capabilities far beyond those of the author.

Music may be copied and distributed at minimal cost through the Internet, but the record industry attempts to provide promotion and marketing for the artist and his or her work so it can reach a much larger audience.

A copyright holder need not transfer all rights completely, though many publishers will insist.

Some of the rights may be transferred, or else the copyright holder may grant another party a non-exclusive license to copy and / or distribute the work in a particular region, or for a specified period of time.

Public Domain

Once the term of a copyright has expired, the formerly copyrighted work enters the public domain, and may be freely used or exploited by anyone.

In the United States, all books and other works published before 1923 have expired copyrights, and are in the public domain.

In addition, works published before 1964 that did not have their copyrights renewed 28 years after first publication are also in the public domain.

However, books originally published outside the US by non-Americans are exempt from this requirement, if they are still under copyright in their home country.

Public domain works should not be confused with works that are publicly available.

Works posted in the internet for example, are publicly available, but are not generally in the public domain. Copying such works may therefore violate the author’s copyright.

Creative Commons

Founded in 2001, Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization which aims to facilitate the legal sharing of creative works.

The organization provides a number of copyright license options to the public, free of charge.

These licenses allow copyright holders to define conditions under which others may use a work and to specify what types of use are acceptable.

Terms of use have traditionally been negotiated on an individual basis between copyright holder and potential licensee.

A general CC license outlining which rights the copyright holder is willing to waive enables the general public to use such works more freely.

Four general types of CC licenses are available. These are based on conditions laid down by the copyright holder – such as whether he or she is willing to allow modifications to the work, whether he or she permits the creation of derivative works, and whether he or she is willing to permit commercial use of the work.

Individuals may register for a CC license via the Creative Commons website.

You copy?


Over. And out.