What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of legal protection for authors of intellectual and creative works which grants owners a set of exclusive rights over how their work is used for a limited period of time.
Why have copyright?
Copyright law provides an incentive to authors to produce and share their work with the public. This is mainly an economic incentive because it gives authors the opportunity to be financially compensated for their work. Copyright delivers an additional benefit to authors by allowing them to have some control over how their work is used by others.
Who is a copyright owner?
Generally, a copyright owner is the original creator or author of the work. In some cases, such as in a work-made-for-hire situation, the copyright owner is the employer.
For jointly created works, copyright may be owned by more than one person. For example, both the author and the illustrator of a children's book are copyright owners of that book since they each contributed creative content to it.
Copyright can also be transferred to someone else. This requires a written agreement, signed by the author. Journal publishers often request that authors transfer copyrights when publishing scholarly articles.
What are the rights?
A copyright owner has the exclusive right to:
- Make copies
- Distribute copies
- Create derivative works (modify & create new works based on the original)
- Publicly perform a work
- Publicly display a work
This means that anyone else who wants to copy, share, perform or display someone else’s work in public needs to get permission before doing so unless there is an exception that allows this type of activity.
What does public display or perform mean?
Performances and displays are considered “public” when they occur in public places which are open to anyone, such as: classrooms, the student union, and campus commons areas. Websites, blogs, YouTube and other file-sharing sites, where access is open to anyone, are also public spaces.
By contrast, private spaces are those places normally limited to family and friends such as a home or dorm room.
Public performances include concerts, movie screenings, and background music in restaurants. Public displays include art exhibits, placing copies of an article on Blackboard, posting a video to YouTube, or uploading an mp3 to a file-sharing network.
What is protected?
Copyright is established automatically at the moment a work is created. No notice or official registration is required by the author and protection extends to both published and unpublished works. In fact, protection extends to just about any type of intellectual work including: literary texts, dramatic works, dance choreography, musical works, artwork, photography, audio & video recordings, and architectural works.
Requirements for protection
Despite the broad coverage of what can be copyrighted, not everything is eligible for protection. There are a few requirements which must be met in order for something to be eligible.
- A work must be “fixed” in a “tangible” form. This means that it must be written or recorded so that someone can read, watch or listen to it.
- A work must be original and demonstrate a minimal level of creativity. In other words, it must be created by the author and not just copied word-for-word from something else.
The bar is set very low for the level of creativity required to qualify for protection and does not depend on the quality of the writing or the talent of the author. Even a simple e-mail message may be eligible for copyright.
What is not protected by copyright?
Even if something meets the requirements discussed above it still may not be eligible for protection. Material that is not protected by copyright includes:
- Works with expired copyright.
- Copyright is granted for a limited amount of time. Once it expires, that work is no longer eligible for copyright protection.
- US Federal documents
- Facts, ideas and concepts
- Information that is “Common Property” such as rulers, height and weight charts, or tables found in public documents
- Words, names, slogans & short phrases
- Procedures and processes
A lot of the material listed above is in the Public Domain and is free for anyone to use without permission or payment of royalties, however, some things which are not protected by copyright may be protected by other intellectual property laws, such as Patent or Trademark laws.
With a few exceptions, much of the material we encounter on a day-to-day basis is likely to be protected by copyright. It is important to be aware of your rights and responsibilities when using the works of others in the course of research, study and teaching.