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A brief intro to copyright

- by Brad Templeton

This document is here because many people read my original article on copyright myths without knowing very much about what copyright is to begin with. This article is not about to teach you all about copyright, though there are some decent sites out there with lots of details, including:

The Basics

Copyright law secures for the creator of a creative effort the exclusive right to control who can make copies, or make works derived from the original work. There are a lot of subtleties and international variations but that's the gist of it. If you create something, and it fits the definition of a creative work, you get to control who can make copies of it and how they make copies, with some important exceptions.

You can also sell or licence this right, or, if you do the work for somebody who hired you to do it, they buy this right in advance.

Creative Work

The first big issue involves defining what it is to make a creative work. The law requires that it exist in some tangible form -- it can't just be in your head or sailing through the ether, it has to be on disk, paper, carved in stone (sculpture) or the like. It has to be creative (that's a tough one for lawyers to define) and that means it can't just be factual data. But most things you write in English (or C++) are going to be creative works, plus anything you photograph or sculpt or draw or record. (What you say isn't copyrighted until it's put onto tape -- it has to be in tangible form.) Anything you write and post to USENET is almost certainly a creative, copyrightable work. Anything you post-process with a computer (like object code) is a derivative work, still copyrighted.

You can also do creative editing or collecting work. So that while facts can't be copyrighted, clever, creative organization of the facts can be. This is called a compilation copyright and it's somewhat complex.

There are some specific exceptions in some countries. Fonts as printed on paper can't be copyrighted for historical reasons. Nothing done by the U.S. government can be copyrighted inside the USA.

And of course you can't copyright something somebody else did without their permission, or derive your work from their work.

Making copies

In its simplest form making copies is making copies. Computers have added some recent complications, like the temporary copies in packet buffers or on screens, and copies left on backup tape. But you can go pretty far by assuming that just about any computerized operation on a work involves copying it.

And simply, the copyright holder gets to say if you can do this. But that's where it all gets modified by the issues of ...


Most of copyright has to do with commerce. In fact, one major reason it's there is that most people believe that if you let people have copyrights and make money from them, it strongly encourages the creation and productive exploitation of creative works, which is a good thing in most people's book. Copyright is also about control of one's creations -- particularly in most non-U.S. countries which explicitly recognize "moral copyrights."

But still, commerce is king. So while a copyright holder can stop you from copying something, usually they would much rather find some way to charge you for copying it. So while some worry that copyright can give rather strong powers to the author, the truth is that the market brings it all into balance.

It also means that to be enforced, copyrights have to have some commercial value. Nobody sane is going to file lawsuits over things like ordinary e-mail messages and USENET postings that have minimal commercial value, if any. You should, however, try to comply with the wishes of authors.

You also have to watch it on USENET and the web. These are no longer tiny places. Posting here is honest-to-goodness publication, sometimes to an audience of hundreds of thousands if not millions. You can seriously damage the commercial value of something by giving it free to such a large audience, all with the touch of a button.

Fair Use / Fair Dealing

There is a complex doctrine associated with copyright law which allows certain types of copying without permission in areas where it is felt that some more important social principles would be violated otherwise.

The "fair use" doctrine (fair dealing in Canada and some other nations) in its purest form, lets a film critic include a clip from a film in her review to illustrate a point. Since negative critics would never get permission to do this, the fair use exemption exists to stop copyright law from being used to stifle criticism.

This means that if you are doing things like comment on a copyrighted work, making fun of it, teaching about it or researching it, you can make some limited use of the work without permission. For example you can quote excerpts to show how poor the writing quality is. You can teach a course about T.S. Eliot and quote lines from his poems to the class to do so. Some people think fair use is a wholesale licence to copy if you don't charge or if you are in education, but it isn't. If you want to republish other stuff without permission and think you have a fair use defence, you should read the more detailed discussions of the subject you will find through the links above.

Fair Use has also seen some expansion in recent days, to things like time-shifting video recordings, computer backups, space-shifting media files and more.

To use the net

There's a pretty simple rule when it comes to the net. If you didn't write it, and you want to reproduce it, ask the creator, or assertain that it meets the complex public domain rules if it's pretty old. Most people don't really need to know much more than this. If you do, check the other documents.

Some legal basics

Under the Berne copyright convention, which almost all major nations have signed, every creative work is copyrighted the moment it is fixed in tangible form. No notice is necessary, though it helps legal cases. No registration is necessary, though it's needed later to sue. The copyright lasts until 70 years after the author dies. Facts and ideas can't be copyrighted, only expressions of creative effort.

This page on copyright law is brought to you by the folks at, "a resource for legal information including a new site on copyright laws."

Now you can go back and read my article on the common copyright myths to learn the things people often get wrong when interacting with copyright on the net.