Last modified: Nov 18 2020
What is copyright?
On this page you will find detailed information about what copyright is and how it protects your work. You can use the navigation box on the right to quickly jump to the section you are interested in or you can scroll down and open the textbox of a subject you want to read more about by clicking on the title of the subject.
Oxford Languages defines copyright as: “the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.”
What is copyright?
When you create an original product, the intention is not that it gets copied and released by someone else under their own name. Rather the intention is to preserve the rights of the original author. This is why copyright laws have been written; to protect anyone who creates original work and to prevent unauthorised use or reproduction of the product. As copyright laws prevent copying someone’s work, they further serve as a constant incentive for people to remain creative.
Copyright laws per country
Unfortunately, there are no standardized international copyright laws that will automatically protect your work globally. Copyright protection depends on the specific laws of a country. However, there are (simplified) international copyright treaties and conventions which most countries adhere to.
Examples of these international treaties are the Berner Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA is an American law that was introduced in 1998 and mainly focuses on the protection of copyrights online.
If copyright infringement is committed in a specific country, it is best to look up local laws and see how they are enforced.
How does copyright work?
When you produce original work, copyright laws apply to it automatically and free of charge. This is not limited to finished products; copyright also applies to partial or incomplete work, drafts and even dismissed or rejected work. As a result, it is not necessary to apply for copyright or to have it recorded in writing. You are not obligated to state that you have copyrights on your product.
However, it is wise to state your name and the date on your work in order to show that the publication was written by you. The generally accepted form of notation is the copyright symbol (©), followed by the year and the author’s name. When someone would like to use or name your work in their own publication, this information immediately shows them who to ask for permission.
A copyright holder can choose not to charge a fee for the use of their work, such as when the creator values freely sharing their work. Special licenses have been drawn up for this, such as Creative Commons. Creative Commons includes a number of licensing models that describe the circumstances under which the work can be used and how it must be referenced. This ranges from ‘non-commercial use’ to ‘only attribution required’ and even ‘no reference required’.
Which rights does copyright consist of?
Copyright includes and describes three main rights:
- The right to publish work;
- The right to reproduce work;
- Moral rights.
The right to publish work
This describes the right to make work available to the public. The main goal is to allow others to read and make use of it. Examples include publishing a book, broadcasting a television programme, releasing a music album or posting photographs the publisher took themselves online.
This also applies to videos that are shared on YouTube or music streaming services such as Spotify. In summary, making work available to the public includes broadcasting, exhibiting, performing, demonstrating, publishing, selling and uploading original work.
The right to reproduce work
Reproduction of work means making identical copies, also known as multiplication. Examples include publishing books, branding CDs, streaming a song on Spotify or uploading a video on Youtube. A reproduced version of an item does not have to be completely identical to the original work as reproduction is a broad concept.
Editing original work is also seen as reproducing it, such as making a remix of a song, making a movie or theatre play adaptation of a book or creating a replica of a statue. Any partial or complete reproduction or editing of an original product is subject to copyright and requires permission from the creator.
Moral rights protect the reputation of the creator of a piece. This part of the Copyright Act recognises the connection between a creator and their work. It provides the creator with the right to defend themselves when their work is adapted, used or published under a different name.
Moral rights are non-transferable, even if the copyrights have been transferred. Even if a piece can be freely reproduced, the creator of the original work will always be allowed to defend their copyrights.
What is not protected by copyright?
Copyright protects original work, but does not apply to the ideas or theories underlying the work. Everyone is free to describe an idea in their own words.
Facts and data are not subject to copyright either, neither are descriptions of facts that can only be described in a limited number of ways. For example, there can be no copyright on a result of a sports match. After all, if facts and data were covered by copyright, only one person would be able to write about them.
However, a collection of (personal) information, facts and data can be protected by copyright, provided that it can be demonstrated that a great deal of time and effort went into collecting the data in the form of a database. A database is not directly subject to copyright, but protected under the Database Law.
How can I protect my work?
You can email a digital document to yourself. An email always contains a date of sending which provides proof that you created the document on that date.
Another (offline) method to protect your copyright is to send a copy of the work (or a scanned version of it) to yourself in a sealed envelope. Upon receiving it, leave the envelope closed and store it in a safe place. Make sure the date is stamped when the envelope is sealed. This allows you to prove that the copy was sent to you on that date and not at a later time.
It is possible to deposit your work with a notary. In this way, it can be notarised that the work is your property. However, costs are involved with this method.
Does copyright online differ from copyright offline?
Copyright protects all original work; there are no differences in copyright between the online and offline worlds. Likewise, you may not reproduce, send or upload a digital copy of someone’s work online without their permission.
Is permission from the author always required?
The main rule, as has been said, is that written documents protected by copyright may not be reproduced or made public; only the rightholder has that right. If you deliberately fail to comply this rule, you are even committing a crime. The creator’s permission is, however, not always required to use copyrighted work. Examples of this are parodying and quoting. Parodying is making a caricature of a piece which sometimes requires copying parts of the original work. In this situation, it is not necessary to make a source reference. An important condition is that the parody is socially permitted. What is permissible depends highly on the precise situation. Examples of what is not allowed include defamation, slander, insults and racial slurs or comments.
In addition, permission is not required to cite a piece. Short quotes may be used for an article, a research paper or a summary, under the condition that the source and author’s name are always stated. More information about citation can be found here.
Differences between copyright, trademark, patents and privacy
There are multiple laws and terms related to data protection, including copyright, trademarks, patents and privacy.
Copyright is intended to protect original work from being reproduced and shared without the author’s permission. This ensures that others cannot copy the creator’s work and claim that they have produced it themselves.
Trademarks are intended to protect consumers. Trademark legislation ensures that only the rightful owner of a brand’s rights can make use of its original content, such as displaying a logo. All communications that allow a consumer to identify the source of the goods and services are covered by trademarks, including brand names, logos and slogans.
A patent describes the exclusive right to make, sell or exploit a product or invention. This allows the owner of the patent to prohibit others from applying or copying their product or invention. Unlike copyright, a patent does not automatically apply to the product and must be applied for at a patent office.
Privacy is not about exclusivity, but about protection and concealing personal data, one’s private life and their living space. Privacy also describes the right to communicate confidentially.