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Copyright: Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright literally means the “right to copy” and is part of a legal framework that protects creators of literary and artistic works (copyright owners) by establishing economic and moral rights that enable creators to control the publication and reproduction of their works, receive recognition and monetary benefits, and protect the integrity of their works.

In Canada, there is no requirement that the work be registered or that the word "copyright," or the symbol ©, appear on the work in order to be protected under the law.  The creator may, however, choose to register a work under a voluntary government registration system.  Other countries may have different requirements in order to initiate copyright protection.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright is a broad category that protects books, articles, plays, performances, software, written music, recorded music, artwork, photography, and other forms of expression.  Some things cannot be protected by copyright, such as a fact or idea.  It is the expression of the fact or idea that is protected.

Copyright protection exists as soon as a work is created in a fixed form.  Literary, dramatic, musical, artistic works, as well as sound recordings, performances, and communication signals – including the Internet – are all protected by copyright.

What is not protected by copyright?

Some things are not protected by copyright.  For example, copyright does not protect factual information, titles, short word combinations, names, characters, slogans, themes, plots, or ideas.  These may be used or copied without permission or payment of royalties (unless they happen to be protected under trademark law). 

Similarly, materials in the public domain can be copied freely, because copyright protection has either lapsed or because the copyright owner has indicated general permission to make copies.  If the latter is the case, make certain you comply with any constraints the owner may have indicated regarding reproduction of the material.

Who owns copyright in a work?

Often, the creator of a work (i.e. one who writes a book, magazine or newspaper article, play, poem, song lyrics or other writings, takes a photograph or makes a film, draws a map, or creates a painting, drawing, or sketch) is the first owner of the copyright in that work.  However, ownership of copyright may be transferred in some cases; for example, to a publisher.  Additionally, if material was created in the course of employment – unless there is an agreement to the contrary – the employer owns the copyright.  Similarly, if a work has been commissioned the copyright will belong to the person or entity that commissioned the work.  Just because someone owns a copy of a work does not mean that they own copyright in that work.

Is the copyright owner the same as the author of a work?

Sometimes, but not necessarily.  The copyright holder may be the author of the work or possibly the publisher (i.e. if the author has signed over copyright).  In most cases, copyright of a published work is held by the publisher unless an author has exercised the option to retain some rights through an author’s addendum or through other licensing arrangements such as Creative Commons.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright does not last forever.  The main purpose of copyright law is to allow for creators of works to be reasonably rewarded for their creative efforts.  Statutory rules were put in place to determine when copyright protection of a work comes to an end, usually 50 years after the death of the creator (the "life plus 50" rule). This will be updated to 70 years after the death of the creator as of Dec. 30th, 2022. 

For example, if a work is published on April 30, 1999, and the author dies on July 27, 2025, then copyright protection extends from April 30, 1999 to December 31, 2095.  If the work was created by more than one person, copyright protection exists for the life of the creator who dies last, the remainder of the calendar year in which that person dies, plus 70 additional years.  Both economic rights and moral rights will exist for the same period of time.

Some types of works such as sound recordings and some photographs and films may have a different length of copyright.  After copyright expires, a work becomes part of the public domain and may be freely copied and distributed.  However, do not assume that works are in the public domain (i.e. artwork).

If a work does not have a copyright notice (or © symbol), is it protected by copyright?

Most likely.  Copyright protection exists as soon as a work is created.  Under Canadian copyright law, the work does not need to be registered and the symbol © is not required to appear on the work.  There may not even be any reference to copyright protection.  It is possible for the work to be registered under a voluntary government registration system, such as Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO).  Other countries have different laws and regulations which govern copyright protection, but most countries offer similar protection in line with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties and conventions.

What is “public domain” and can I copy works from the public domain freely?

Copyright does not last forever.  The main purpose of copyright law is to allow for creators of works to be reasonably rewarded for their creative efforts.  To that end, there are statutory rules to determine when copyright protection of a work comes to an end (the "life plus 70” rule).  When the term of copyright expires, the work is said to come into the "public domain" and is then available for anyone to use and copy without seeking permission from the copyright owner (the author retains no rights in the work).  This is the reason that Dickens' books, Shakespeare's plays, and Beethoven's symphonies no longer are protected by copyright.

Works can also be in public domain because the work was either not eligible for copyright protection in the first place or the copyright owner has given copyright in the work to the public.  This can be done simply by stating on the work that it may be copied or reproduced without permission or payment of royalties.  However, restrictions can be placed on the uses that can be made of works in this case and you must be sure to use the material accordingly.

Project Gutenberg is a good resource for finding literary works in the public domain.

Who in the university is responsible for ensuring that faculty, staff and students comply with copyright university policy?

Everyone.  Faculty, staff and students should always seek to comply with the Copyright Act as a best practice of academic professionalism.  You are only permitted to make lawful copies of works, and use works in lawful ways – failure to comply with the Copyright Act could lead to personal liability, as well as liability for the University.  Ensure that you use copyrighted materials appropriately.  Advise your students and colleagues to use copyrighted materials appropriately.  Contact the Copyright Librarian if you have questions.

The University of the Fraser Valley is situated on the traditional territory of the Stó:lō peoples. The Stó:lō have an intrinsic relationship with what they refer to as S’olh Temexw (Our Sacred Land), therefore we express our gratitude and respect for the honour of living and working in this territory.

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