Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Copyright Definition:

The exclusive right to produce or reproduce (copy), to perform in public or to publish an original literary or artistic work, pursuant to a statute usually called the "Copyright Act", or some similar name.

Related Terms: Intellectual Property, Patent, Trademark, Research, Fair Dealing, Fair Use, Scenes A Faire

For a history of copyright see Copyright Law: The History and 561: The Copyright War, though we would quote from Millar v Taylor in which Justice Yates proposed that, while "ideas are free":

"But while the author confines them to his study, they are like birds in  cage, which none but he can have a right to let fly: for till he thinks proper to emancipate them, they are under his own dominion."

There is no common law copyright. Such a legal right must have a statutory basis which, usually, will act as a complete code of law as to the rights or liabilities associated with this intellectual property.

Copyright is also partly determined by the scope of international treaties to which some states may be signatories, such as, for example, the Berne Convention on International Copyright and the WIPO Copyright Treaty (1996).

In Copinger and Skone James on Copyright, the term is defined as:

"Copyright is ... the bundle of rights that are granted by statute, for limited periods of time and subject to certain permitted exceptions, in respect of original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works such as novels, plays, poems, musical compositions, paintings, sculptures, as well as sound recordings, films, broadcasts or cable programmes, performances and typographical arrangements of published editions. These are proprietary rights giving the owner the right to do and to authorise other persons to do the acts restricted by the copyright law."

In Compo, Justice Estey of the Canadian Supreme Court wrote:

"Copyright law is neither tort law nor property law in classification, but is statutory law. It neither cuts across existing rights in property or conduct nor falls between rights and obligations heretofore existing in the common law. Copyright legislation simply creates rights and obligations upon the terms and in the circumstances set out in the statute. This creature of statute has been known to the law of England at least since the days of Queen Anne when the first copyright statute was passed. It does not assist the interpretive analysis to import tort concepts. The legislation speaks for itself and the actions of the appellant must be measured according to the terms of the statute."

At ¶99-100 of Anne of Green Gables, Justice Wilson of the Ontario Supreme Court summarized copyright as:

"Copyright is described as a bundle of rights which confer upon the owner the rights inter alia to publish, produce, reproduce, perform, translate, adapt, communicate, exhibit, rent, trade and distribute the literary work.

"Copyright protects the original literary work itself, plus any of its characters whose descriptions are distinctive, thorough, and complete.

"The common law has interpreted copyright as entitling the owner to assert his or her exclusive proprietary rights to commercially exploit an original work, or characters and situations in the work.

"As a general rule, copyright protects only some, but not all, of the content of a literary work. It protects the form in which ideas are expressed, but it does not protect the ideas themselves."

In the United States, the Intellectual Property Office defines copyright as:

copyright mark"... a form of protection provided to the authors of original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.

"The (US) 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly, or to display the copyrighted work publicly.

"(C)opyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter of the writing. For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine."

Many countries have expanded the definition of a literary work to include computer programs or other electronically stored information.

The international symbol for a work for which copyright is claimed is the "c" inside of a circle as in ©.

Copyright are not absolute rights and are subject to a number of limited exceptions such as fair use or fair dealing.


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