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Intellectual Property Law Primer: Copyright

What is Copyright?

Copyright (or author’s right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.

What Rights Does Copyright Protect?

There are two types of rights under copyright:

  • Economic rights, which allow the rights owner to derive financial reward from the use of his works by others; and
  • Moral rights, which protect the non-economic interests of the author.

What Can Be Protected Using Copyright

Exhaustive lists of works covered by copyright are usually not to be found in legislation. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, works commonly protected by copyright throughout the world include:

  • literary works such as novels, poems, plays, reference works, newspaper articles;
  • computer programs, databases;
  • films, musical compositions, and choreography;
  • artistic works such as paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculpture;
  • architecture; and
  • advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.

Copyright protection extends only to expressions, and not to ideas, procedures, methods of operation or mathematical concepts as such. Copyright may or may not be available for a number of objects such as titles, slogans, or logos, depending on whether they contain sufficient authorship.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last

All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain -- that is, these are not protected by copyright law.

As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. 

To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act.

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