Copyright Definition

Learn What Can Be Copyrighted & What Can't

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Copyright describes the legal rights of the owner of intellectual property.

Literally, the definition of copyright is the right to copy. The person who owns the copyright of a work is the only person who can copy that work or give permission to someone else to copy it.

The definition of copyright according to Canada's Copyright Act is: "the sole right to produce or reproduce a work or any substantial part thereof in any material form, to perform the work or any substantial part thereof in public, or, if the work is unpublished, to publish the work or any substantial part thereof."

Besides being able to assign their copyright, license it or use it for funding, copyright holders may also collect royalties when others use their copyrighted work.

How is Copyright Granted?

Copyright differs from other intellectual property in that copyright is automatically created when a person creates a copyrightable work, that is, an original literary (including software), dramatic, musical, or artistic work. There is no need to register such a work for it to "be copyrighted".

However, you can register your copyright if you like. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office advises that "Although copyright in a work exists automatically... a certificate of registration is evidence that your creation is protected by copyright and that you, the person registered, are the owner. It can be used in court as evidence of ownership." Their A Guide to Copyrights explains the registration process.

And copyright, unlike other intellectual property rights, is automatically applicable to many countries which have copyright treaties with Canada (such as the United States and countries in Europe).

Quite severe penalties exist for copyright infringement. Besides knowing what your copyright rights are, you need to take care not to violate the copyright of others.

What Can be Protected by Copyright?

Copyright law applies to a broad range of intellectual property, including:

  1. Writings of almost any kind - books, articles, reviews, poems, essays, blogs, etc., whether online or printed. Also includes plays and writings for movies or broadcast.
  2. Website contents - including text, pictures, graphics, and even the page layout.
  3. Computer programs
  4. Motion pictures - movies, TV programs, podcasts, etc.
  5. Music - includes lyrics and instrumentals. The owner of the copyright has exclusive rights to copy or perform the music or assign the rights to do so to others.
  6. Artistic works - visual arts of any kind including paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc., but also including graphics, maps, charts, and photography.
  7. Original architectural designs

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

Copyright duration varies from country to country. In Canada copyright lasts for the duration of the creator's life plus 50 years from the end of the calendar year of the creator's death. In the United States and the United Kingdom, copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Famous Copyright Cases

In the computing world, one of the most famous copyright infringement cases involved Apple Computer filing suit against Microsoft in 1994 after various releases of Microsoft Windows operating system.

Apple claimed that the graphical user interface (GUI) of the Macintosh operating system was protected by copyright and that the similarity of some aspects of Windows constituted copyright infringement. The suit was further complicated when Xerox filed a lawsuit against Apple claiming that Apple had used elements of Xerox's GUI design in the Macintosh OS.

The courts rejected Apple's claims based on the following conclusions:

  1. Apple had previously licensed individual elements of the GUI design to Microsoft
  2. Other elements of the GUI design came from Xerox (and were therefore not original)
  3. The "look and feel" of the GUI could not be copyrighted.

One of the most famous copyright cases in music occurred when George Harrison released the song "My Sweet Lord" in 1970. Bright Tunes Music, a small New York publisher, filed suit claiming that the song was identical to a 1963 song by one of their artists (the Chiffons).

Harrison attempted to settle out of court but the case eventually went to trial in 1976 and Harrison was found guilty of "subconscious plagiarism" and was forced to pay $1.6 million to Bright Tunes Music. The damages were eventually reduced to $587,000.

Examples: Generally, copyright lasts for the life of the author, and for 50 years after his or her death.