How Copyright Works: Frequently Asked Questions

If you struggle with understanding copyright law, you are not alone! It’s a complex topic that can get tricky for even the most proficient of legal experts. Let us help you break it down with these frequently asked questions (FAQ) about copyright law. The following FAQ are based primarily on the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (Berne Convention) which makes them applicable to multiple locations.

The Berne Convention is an international treaty on copyright. The countries that signed this treated have become known as the Berne Union. This Union formed an agreement that set an international standard for copyright law. Each country can amend copyright laws to be more strict than the ones found in the treaty, but no country within the Berne Union may have laws that take away the rights guaranteed by Berne treaty.

Most countries are members of the Berne Union. You can find a full list of Berne Union members by accessing the World Intellectual Property Organization’s list of assembly members.

Copyright is a term that refers to the legal protection applied to certain types of creative property. It grants exclusive rights for the copyright owner to dictate who can use, edit, reproduce, and distribute their copyrighted work.

Copyright law covers works of creation. It can apply to visual works of art (e.g. paintings, sculptures, photography), music (e.g. lyrics, sheet music, songs), and written works (e.g. books, poetry, essays, and notes). It can even apply to computer coding (e.g. HTML, CSS, JavaScript). The key to copyright is that the work must be in a concrete, fixed, tangible form for the law to be applicable. In other words, it must be in a form that other people can see, hear, touch, or feel. You cannot copyright the sunset or your view of the sunset. However, if you take a picture of that sunset, then the photograph that you have taken can be copyrighted.

Copyright does not apply to anything that cannot be fixed into a concrete physical form. You cannot copyright ideas, facts, or concepts. You also cannot copyright generally known knowledge including procedures, processes, definitions, or news. Titles, names, and short phrases or slogans cannot be copyrighted either. Short phrases or slogans are often registered under trademark protection instead. Trademark is often displayed with the ™ symbol. Trademark protection is not the same as copyright protection.

Even though certain works cannot be copyrighted directly, certain aspects of that work may qualify for copyright protection. For example, a dictionary cannot copyright the definition of ‘apple’. That an apple is a fruit is common knowledge, and you cannot copyright common knowledge. However, a dictionary can copyright their specific book layout, website design, or the exact wording they use in describing the meaning of the word ‘apple’.

Public domain refers to works in which there are no existing copyrights or limitations on use. These works have either had their copyright expire or were never able to apply for copyright protection. Works in the public domain cannot be copyrighted.

Copyright belongs the original creator(s) of the work. However, copyright can be legally sold. If a creator was hired to create an original work for another, then the one who hired them legally owns the copyright. For example, if you are hired to write an article for a newspaper, then the newspaper would own the copyright to the article published even if you are the author. While you are not the copyright owner, you do have a right to claim authorship and to have that attributed to you. Authorship means that you have the right to claim that the article was your concept or work and to object to any modifications to the original work that you did which may be harmful to your reputation. You do not have the right to reproduce or distribute the article on your own without permission from the newspaper who owns the copyright.

Works are automatically copyrighted under the Berne Convention so long as the author’s name or business name is on it. Registration for copyright is not required by law. If copyright ownership comes into question, then some type of tangible proof is required that the owner is the original creator of the work. This proof can be something as simple as your name and the date of creation being on the work.

Registration is not a requirement for copyright protection, but registering a copyright claim helps provide security in the event that you ever have to defend your right to your work. It provides proof that you are the copyright owner of the work in question and verifies the date of copyright with an outside third party.

  • The copyright holder of any given work has the exclusive right to:
    • Allow or deny distribution
    • Make or authorize translations
    • Permit reproductions
    • Permit sound/visual recording reproductions
    • Authorize cinematographic (movie) adaptation and reproduction
    • Authorize derivative works (see ‘What is a derivative work?’ if needed)
    • Publicly display or perform the work
    • Permit public recitation of the work

The copyright notice or symbol is an identification that there is existing copyright. The symbol looks like the letter c with a circle around it – like this ©. To correctly set up a copyright notice, you must use copyright either as a word or a symbol followed by the date of first publication and the name of the copyright holder. For example, © Date First-Name Last-Name or Organization. The copyright notice for could read © 2021

Copyright lasts the life of the author and then for 50 years following that author’s death. In the case of movies and anonymous authors, copyright expires 50 years after the work was first made public. This copyright period legally varies between countries. This limit is the minimum time allowed for a copyright claim. When copyright expires, the work transitions to the public domain where copyright protection does not apply. There is no limitation on acceptable use in the public domain.

You may with the permission of the copyright holder. The copyright holder is granted the exclusive right to allow or deny the translation of their works. There are exceptions. Some web browsers automatically translate webpages that are under copyright protection. This translation is not a violation of copyright law because the browser translates the work ‘as is’ in its original format rather than creating a work based on this translation. It is not a violation if you were to translate a book that you are reading to your friend from the book you are reading (e.g., reading it aloud to them). It would be a violation if you wrote and published a translation of that same book.

A derivative work is a new and original work based upon an existing piece. Fanfictions, music remixes, translations, sequels, and reproductions are all examples of derivative works. The copyright holder maintains the exclusive right to produce derivative works.

Fair use is the use of copyrighted material for the purposes of education, research, criticism, commentary, news reporting, and parody. With fair use, it is expected that credit is given to the original creator of the copyrighted work that is being referenced. Otherwise, you are committing plagiarism. It is fair use which allows a person to use someone else’s works and research in their own essays and papers or to create plays and dramas parodying famous works. Fair use is considered a gray area in copyright law. A judge addresses the legality of a fair use claim on a case by case basis. Previous court rulings on fair use judgements can be found in the U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index.

  • Judges use four main factors in determining whether or not something fits the fair use clause in copyright law:
    • Purpose and use – non-profit and educational versus commercial use or entertainment
    • The nature of the original copyrighted work – creative works versus research
    • The amount of material used – small parts versus using large amounts of content
    • The effect your use will have on the market value of the original

Plagiarism is the taking of copyrighted material and presenting it in such a manner which implies that it is your own work. Plagiarism is a strict violation of copyright law. It is also against many policies that govern professional or academic institutions. Those found to plagiarize will often lose any credibility on works that are truly their own. Citing and acknowledging your sources of information is the surest way to prevent plagiarism. You can read more about Plagiarism: Its Effects and How to Prevent It.

Citing and crediting your source can add credibility to the point you are trying to make. Accurately citing sources and providing reference information allows people the opportunity to further research the topic you are discussing. Crediting the authors of works helps avoid plagiarism that can damage your credibility and lead to legal conflicts.

Any time you use a direct quote, paraphrase content, or use an idea that is not original to you, then you need to credit the original source. Otherwise, it is considered plagiarism. When in doubt, it is better to cite than to not cite.

There are several formats that can be used to cite a source. MLA and APA are two commonly used methods in the U.S. Regardless of which method used, you will need to know the name of the original author, the date of first publication, and which edition you are using (if any other than the first), the title of the work, the editor, the publisher, the website address (if you are using an online source). There are several websites that can help you with citations. Purdue OWL is an excellent resource for help in learning proper citation methods. Son of a Citation Machine can help you turn your information into a proper citation.

Copyright infringement means that a right that belongs only to the copyright holder is violated by someone else. Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, translated, or adapted without the copyright holder’s permission. Copyright infringement can result in the copyright holder seeking compensation for your unauthorized use of their work.

No. Only the copyright holder has the right to distribute. If you buy a song, album, book, or other written work, you have purchased the right to use that work privately for personal use. Buying the right to use a work does not in any way transfer the right of copyright. The right to use a work does not automatically give you the right to distribute it. You can sell your right of use to another providing you are selling the original copy that you bought and not a duplicate that you have made of it. For example, if you buy a DVD in a store, you own that copy of that DVD and have the right to play and use that DVD. If you tire of it, you have the right to sell that DVD to your friend. You are committing copyright infringement and are distributing illegal material if you choose to make a copy of that DVD and sell your friend the copy.

No. Permission to use work is permission to use the work ‘as is’. The right to alter the work from the original or to distribute it remains exclusively the right of the copyright holder. The copyright holder may grant permission to alter the original or to distribute it at their discretion. If you receive such permission, for your own legal protection, have that permission somewhere in writing. That way, if it ever goes to court, you have proof that you were given permission to make alterations or to distribute work that you did not own the right to.