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Not to be confused with Copywriting. All work on this site by PM Crowley contains ©Copyright. Other content is GNU license.
For policy about copyright issues, see: Copyrights
Copyright symbol
Copyright symbol

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights regulating the use of a particular expression of an idea or information. At its most general, it is literally "the right to copy" an original creation. In most cases, these rights are of limited duration. The symbol for copyright is ©, and in some jurisdictions may alternatively be written as either (c) or (C).

Copyright may subsist in a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms or "works". These include poems, theses, plays, and other literary works, movies, choreographic works (dances, ballets, etc.), musical compositions, audio recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, software, radio and Television broadcasts of live and other performances, and, in some jurisdictions, industrial designs. designs or industrial designs may have separate or overlapping laws applied to them in some jurisdictions. Copyright is one of the laws covered by the umbrella term intellectual property.

Copyright law covers only the form or manner in which ideas or information have been manifested, the "form of material expression". It is not designed or intended to cover the actual idea, concepts, facts, styles, or techniques which may be embodied in or represented by the copyright work. For example, the copyright which subsists in relation to a Mickey Mouse cartoon prohibits unauthorized parties from distributing copies of the cartoon or creating derivative works which copy or mimic Disney's particular anthropomorphic mouse, but does not prohibit the creation of artistic works about anthropomorphic mice in general, so long as they are sufficiently different to not be deemed imitative of the original. In some jurisdictions, copyright law provides scope for satirical or interpretive works which themselves may be copyrighted. Other laws may impose legal restrictions on reproduction or use where copyright does not - such as trademarks and patents.

Copyright laws are standardized through international conventions such as the Berne Convention in some countries and are required by international organizations such as European Union or World Trade Organization from their member states.


Main article: History of copyright law

Copyright was not invented until after the advent of the printing press and with wider public literacy. As a legal concept, its origins in Britain were from a reaction to printers' monopolies at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Charles II of England was concerned by the unfair copying of books and used the royal prerogative to pass the Licensing Act of 1662 which established a register of licensed books and required a copy to be deposited with the Stationers Company, essentially continuing the licensing of material that had long been in effect. The Statute of Anne was the first real copyright act, and gave the author rights for a fixed period, after which the copyright expired. Copyright has grown from a legal concept regulating copying rights in the publishing of books and maps to one with a significant effect on nearly every modern industry, covering such items as sound recordings, films, photographs, software, and architectural works.

The Berne Convention

The 1886 Berne Convention first established recognition of copyrights among sovereign nations, rather than merely bilaterally. Under the Berne Convention, copyrights for creative works do not have to be asserted or declared, as they are automatically in force at creation: an author need not "register" or "apply for" a copyright in countries adhering to the Berne Convention. As soon as a work is "fixed", that is, written or recorded on some physical medium, its author is automatically entitled to all copyrights in the work, and to any derivative works unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them, or until the copyright expires. The Berne Convention also resulted in foreign authors being treated equivalently to domestic authors, in any country signed onto the Convention.

The UK signed the Berne Convention in 1887 but did not implement large parts of it until 100 years later with the passage of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. The USA did not sign the Berne Convention until 1989.

The regulations of the Berne Convention are incorporated into the World Trade Organization's TRIPS agreement, thus making the Berne Convention practically world-wide.

Obtaining and enforcing copyright

Typically, a work must meet minimal standards of originality in order to qualify for copyright, and the copyright expires after a set period of time (some jurisdictions may allow this to be extended). Different countries impose different tests, although generally the requirements are low; in the United Kingdom there has to be some 'skill, originality and work' which has gone into it. However, even fairly trivial amounts of these qualities are sufficient for determining whether a particular act of copying constitutes an infringement of the author's original expression. In Australia and the United Kingdom it has been held that a single word is insufficient to comprise a copyright work. In the UK, however, single words or a string of words, usually less than eight, can be registered as a "Trade Mark" instead.

In the United States, copyright has been made automatic (in the style of the Berne Convention) since March 1, 1989, which has had the effect of making it appear to be more like a property right. Thus, as with property, a copyright need not be granted or obtained through official registration with any government office. Once an idea has been reduced to tangible form, for example by securing it in a fixed medium (such as a drawing, sheet music, photograph, a videotape or a letter), the copyright holder is entitled to enforce his or her exclusive rights. However, while a copyright need not be officially registered for the copyright owner to begin exercising his exclusive rights, registration of works (where the laws of that jurisdiction provide for registration) does have benefits; it serves as prima facie evidence of a valid copyright and enables the copyright holder to seek statutory damages and attorney's fees (whereas in the USA, for instance, registering after an infringement only enables one to receive actual damages and lost profits). The original holder of the copyright may be the employer of the actual author rather than the author himself if the work is a "work for hire". Again, this principle is widespread; in English law the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides that where a work in which copyright subsists is made by an employee in the course of that employment, the copyright is automatically assigned to the employer.

Copyrights are generally enforced by the holder in a civil law court, but there are also criminal infringement statutes. Criminal sanctions are generally aimed at serious counterfeiting activity, but are now becoming more commonplace as copyright collectives such as the RIAA are, more and more, targeting the file sharing home Internet user. Thus far however, these cases have usually been settled outside of court, with demands of payment of several thousand dollars accompanied by nothing more than a threat to sue the file sharer, which will be ruinous to many defendants in practice, thus such cases rarely make their way to civil law courts.

Copyright notices

Use of a copyright notice - consisting of the letter C inside of a circle (that is, "©"), 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 previous United States statutory requirements. (Note that the letter C inside of parentheses ("(c)") has never been an officially recognized designator.) But in 1989, the U.S. 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, notice of copyright (using these marks) does have consequences in terms of allowable damages in an infringement lawsuit in some places.

It is important to understand that absence of the copyright symbol does not mean that the work is not covered by copyright. The work once created from originality through 'mental labor' is instantaneously considered copyrighted to that person.

The phrase All rights reserved was once a necessary formal notice that all rights granted under existing copyright law are retained by the copyright holder and that legal action may be taken against copyright infringement. It was provided as a result of the Buenos Aires Convention of 1910, which required some statement of reservation of rights to grant international coverage in all the countries that were signatory to that convention. While it is commonplace to see it, this notice is now superfluous, as every country that is a member of the Buenos Aires Convention is also a member of the Berne Convention, which hold a copyright to be valid in all signatory states without any formality of notice.

This phrase is sometimes still used even on some documents to which the original author does not retain all rights granted by copyright law, such as works released under a copyleft license. It is, however, only a habitual formality and is unlikely to have legal consequences.

Exclusive rights

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 means of digital audio transmission (XM Satellite Radio, Sirius)

The phrase "exclusive right" means that only the copyright holder is free to exercise the attendant rights, and others are prohibited using the work without the consent of the copyright holder. Copyright is often called a "negative right", as it serves to prohibit people (e.g. readers, viewers, or listeners, and primarily publishers and would be publishers) from doing something, rather than permitting people (e.g. authors) to do something. In this way it is similar to the unregistered design right in English law and European law. The rights of the copyright holder also permit him/her to not use or exploit their copyright for its duration. This means an author can choose to exploit their copyright for some of the duration and then not for the rest, vice versa, or entirely one or the other.

There is however a critique which rejects this assertion as being based on a philosophical interpretation of copyright law, and is not universally shared. There is also debate on whether copyright should be considered a property right or a moral right. Many argue that copyright does not exist merely to restrict third parties from publishing ideas and information, and that defining copyright purely as a negative right is incompatible with the public policy objective of encouraging authors to create new works and enrich the public domain.

The right to adapt a work means to transform the way in which the work is expressed. Examples include developing a stage play or film script from a novel; translating a short story; and making a new arrangement of a musical work.

Limits and exceptions to copyright

Main article: Limitations and exceptions to copyright

Idea-expression dichotomy and the merger doctrine

Main article: Idea-expression divide

Immanuel Kant in his 1785 essay Von der Unrechtmäßigkeit des Büchernachdrucks distinguishes the physical from the ideational, the thought involved from the book. This distinction is of critical import to the near constant wrangling between publishers, other intermediaries, and the original, creative authors.

A copyright covers the expression of an idea, not the idea itself - this is called the idea/expression or fact/expression dichotomy. For example, if a writer has a general concept or idea for a television program, a copyright of that "idea" does not prohibit other writers from creating the same general idea for a project. However, if the writer develops the idea to a point of detailed and specific aspects and storylines of the show, then that specific expression of the idea is copyrighted. Many writers will seek electronic proof-of-creation for their developed ideas using the Writers Guild, or CreatorsVault.com online registries. Once a writer secures their copyright or registration with one of these services, they must then take care to track all exposure with documentation, either via fax, certified mail, or electronic proof of submission.

Another example could be if a book is written describing a new way to organize books in a library, a copyright does not prohibit a reader from freely using and describing that concept to others; it is only the particular expression of that process as originally described that is covered by copyright. One might be able to obtain a patent for the method, but that is a different area of law. Compilations of facts or data may also be copyrighted, but such a copyright is thin; it only applies to the particular selection and arrangement of the included items, not to the particular items themselves. In some jurisdictions the contents of databases are expressly covered by statute.

In some cases, ideas may be capable of intelligible expression in only one or a limited number of ways. Therefore even the expression in these circumstances is not covered. In the United States this is known as the merger doctrine, because the expression is considered to be inextricably merged with the idea. Merger is often pleaded as an affirmative defense to charges of infringement. That doctrine is not necessarily accepted in other jurisdictions.

The first-sale doctrine and exhaustion of rights

Main articles: First-sale doctrine and Exhaustion of rights

Copyright law does not restrict the owner of a copy from reselling legitimately obtained copies of copyrighted works, provided that those copies were originally produced by or with the permission of the copyright holder. It is therefore legal, for example, to resell a copyrighted book or CD. In the United States this is known as the first-sale doctrine, and was established by the courts to clarify the legality of reselling books in second-hand bookstores. Some countries may have parallel importation restrictions that allow the copyright holder of their licensee to control the aftermarket. This may mean for example that a copy of a book that does not infringe copyright in the country where it was printed does infringe copyright in a country into which it is imported for retailing. The first-sale doctrine is known as exhaustion of rights in other countries and is a principle which also applies, though somewhat differently, to patent and trademark rights. It is important to note that the first-sale doctrine permits the transfer of the particular legitimate copy involved. It does not permit making or distributing additional copies.

In addition, copyright, in most cases, does not prohibit one from acts such as modifying, defacing, or destroying his or her own legitimately obtained copy of a copyrighted work, so long as duplication is not involved. However, in countries that implement moral rights, a copyright holder can in some cases successfully prevent the mutilation or destruction of a work that is publicly visible.

Fair use and fair dealing

Main articles: Fair use and Fair dealing

Copyright does not prohibit all copying or replication. In the United States, the fair use doctrine, codified by the Copyright Act of 1976 as 17 U.S.C. Section 107, permits some copying and distribution without permission of the copyright holder or payment to same. The statute does not clearly define fair use, but instead gives four non-exclusive factors to consider in a fair use analysis. Those factors are:

  1. the purpose and character of your use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. what amount and proportion of the whole work was taken, and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In the United Kingdom and many other Commonwealth countries, a similar notion of fair dealing was established by the courts or through legislation. The concept is sometimes not well defined; however in Canada, private copying for personal use has been expressly permitted by statute since 1999. In Australia, the fair dealing exceptions under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) are a limited set of circumstances under which copyright material can be legally copied or adapted without the copyright holder's consent. Fair dealing uses are research and study; review and critique; news reportage and the giving of professional advice (ie legal advice). Under current Australian law it is still a breach of copyright to copy, reproduce or adapt copyright material for personal or private use without permission from the copyright owner. Other technical exemptions from infringement may also apply, such as the temporary reproduction of a work in machine readable form for a computer.

In the United States the AHRA (Audio Home Recording Act Codified in Section 10, 1992) prohibits action against consumers making noncommercial recordings of music, in return for royalties on both media and devices plus mandatory copy-control mechanisms on recorders.

Section 1008. Prohibition on certain infringement actions
No action may be brought under this title alleging infringement of copyright based on the manufacture, importation, or distribution of a digital audio recording device, a digital audio recording medium, an analog recording device, or an analog recording medium, or based on the noncommercial use by a consumer of such a device or medium for making digital musical recordings or analog musical recordings.

Later acts amended US Copyright law so that for certain purposes making 10 copies or more is construed to be commercial, but there is no general rule permitting such copying. Indeed making one complete copy of a work, or in many cases using a portion of it, for commercial purposes will not be considered fair use. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits the manufacture, importation, or distribution of devices whose intended use, or only significant commercial use, is to bypass an access or copy control put in place by a copyright owner. An appellate court has held that fair use is not a defense to engaging in such distribution.

Transfer and licensing

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 (and original copyright holder) benefits, or expects to, from production and marketing capabilities far beyond those of the author. In the digital age of music, music may be copied and distributed at minimal cost through the Internet, however the record industry attempts to provide promotion and marketing for the artist and his 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. A transfer or licence may have to meet particular formal requirements in order to be effective; see section 239 of the Australia Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Under Australian law, it is not enough to pay for a work to be created in order to also own the copyright. The copyright itself must be expressly transferred in writing.

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, a transfer of ownership in copyright must be memorialized in a writing signed by the transferor. For that purpose, ownership in copyright includes exclusive licenses of rights. Thus exclusive licenses, to be effective, must be granted in a written instrument signed by the grantor. No special form of transfer or grant is required. A simple document that identifies the work involved and the rights being granted is sufficient. Non-exclusive grants (often called non-exclusive licenses) need not be in writing under U.S. law. They can be oral or even implied by the behavior of the parties. Transfers of copyright ownership, including exclusive licenses, may and should be recorded in the U.S. Copyright Office. (Information on recording transfers is available on the Office's web site.) While recording is not required to make the grant effective, it offers important benefits, much like those obtained by recording a deed in a real estate transaction.

Copyright may also be licensed. Some jurisdictions may provide that certain classes of copyrighted works be made available under a prescribed statutory license (e.g. 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. Because of the difficulty of following every individual work, copyright collectives or collecting societies and performing rights organizations (such as ASCAP, BMI, RIAA and MPAA) have been formed to collect royalties for hundreds (thousands and more) works at once. Though this market solution bypasses the statutory license, the availability of the statutory fee still helps dictate the price per work collective rights organizations charge, driving it down to what avoidance of procedural hassle would justify.

Similar legal rights

Copyright law covers the creative or artistic expression of an idea. patent law covers inventions. trademark law covers distinctive signs which are used in relation to products or services as indicators of origin, as does (in a similar fashion), Trade Dress. Registered designs law covers the look or appearance of a manufactured or functional article. trade secret law covers secret or sensitive knowledge or information.

Although copyright and trademark laws are theoretically distinct, more than one type of them may cover the same item or subject matter. For example, in the case of the Mickey Mouse cartoon, the image and name of Mickey Mouse would be the subject of trademark legislation, while the cartoon itself would be subject to copyright. Titles and character names from books or movies may also be trademarked while the works from which they are drawn may qualify for copyright.

Another point of distinction is that a copyright (and a patent) is generally subject to a statutorily-determined term, whereas a trademark registration may remain in force indefinitely if the trademark is periodically used and renewal fees continue to be duly paid to the relevant jurisdiction's trade marks office or registry. 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. Courts in the United States and the United Kingdom have rejected the doctrine of a common law copyright. 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.

Useful articles

If a pictorial, graphic or sculptural work is a useful article, it is copyrighted only if its aesthetic features are separable from its utilitarian features. A useful article is an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. The must be separable from the functional aspect to be copyrighted.

There are two primary approaches to the separability issue: physical separability and conceptual separability. Physical separability is the ability to take the aesthetic thing away from the functional thing. Conceptual separability can be found in several different ways. It may be present if the useful article is also shown to be appreciated for its aesthetic appeal or by the design approach, which is the idea that separability is only available if the designer is able to make the aesthetic choices that are unaffected by the functional considerations. A question may also be asked of whether an individual would think of the aesthetic aspects of the work being separate from the functional aspects.

There are several different tests available for conceptual separability. The first, the Primary Use test, asks how is the thing primarily used: art or function? The second, the Marketable as Art test, asks can the article be sold as art, whether functional or not. This test does not have much backing, as almost anything can be sold as art. The third test, Temporal Displacement, asks could an individual conceptualize the article as art without conceptualizing functionality at the same time. Finally, the Denicola test says that copyrightability should ultimately depend on the extent to which the work reflects the artistic expression inhibited by functional consideration. If something came to have a pleasing shape because there were functional considerations, the artistic aspect was constrained by those concerns.

How long copyright lasts

Copyright subsists for a variety of lengths in different jurisdictions, with different categories of works and the length it subsists for also depends on whether a work is published or unpublished. In most of the world the default length of copyright for many works is generally the life of the author plus either 50 or 70 years. Copyright in general always expires at the end of the year concerned, rather than on the exact date of the death of the author. (The right to reclaim a copyright--or "terminate the transfer" of a copyright--commences and ends on the anniversaries of exact dates in the United States.)

So when can one conclude that a book is in the public domain? In the United States, all books and other works published before 1923 have expired copyrights and are in the public domain. In addition, under § 105 of the Copyright Act, all works created by the U.S. Government (other than works of standard reference data produced by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under the Standard Reference Data Act, codified at 15 U.S.C. § 290e) are not subject to copyright. Note, however, that the U.S. Postal Service is a quasi-public corporation wholly owned by the U.S. Government, and is not part of the U.S. government, per se. Therefore, works of the Postal Service are not "works of the U.S. government" for purposes of § 105 and are generally subject to copyright. See the Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 206.02(b).

But if the intended exploitation of the work includes publication (or distribution of derivative work, such as a film based on a book protected by copyright) outside the U.S., the terms of copyright around the world must be considered. If the author has been dead more than 70 years, the work is in the public domain in most, but not all, countries. In Italy and France, there are wartime extensions that could increase the term by approximately 6 years in Italy and up to about 14 in France. Some works are covered by copyright in Spain for 80 years after the author's death.


In the United States, the Copyright Office maintains that typeface designs are not covered by copyright, and it will not accept applications for their registration. 37. C.F.R. § 202.1(e). However, if a design is novel and "non-obvious," it may be covered by design patent. See, for example, , May 12, 1987), Charles A. Bigelow and Kris A. Holmes, inventors. Germany (in 1981) passed a special extension (Schriftzeichengesetz) to the design patent law (Geschmacksmustergesetz) for protecting them. This permits typefaces being registered as designs in Germany, too.

The United Kingdom (in 1989) has passed a law making typeface designs copyrightable. The British also applies to designs produced before 1989.

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