World Intellectual Property Organization

Copyright Basics

Copyright is a legal term which refers to the rights granted to authors, artists and other creators for their literary and creations, generally referred to as “works”.

Under this system of rights, creators are assured that their works can be disseminated without fear of unauthorized copying or piracy.

Works covered by copyright include, but are not limited to:

  • literary works such as novels, poems, plays, reference works, newspapers and 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. This principle has been confirmed by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as well as the WIPO Copyright Treaty.

Copyright may or may not be available for titles, slogans, or logos, depending on whether they contain sufficient authorship. In most circumstances copyright does not protect names.

The original creators of works protected by copyright, and their heirs and successors, have certain basic rights under copyright laws. They hold the exclusive right to use or authorize others to use the work on agreed terms.

The right holder(s) of a work can authorize or prohibit:

  • its reproduction in various forms, such as printed publication or sound recording;
  • its public performance, such as in a play or musical work;
  • its recording (“fixation”), for example, in the form of compact discs or DVDs;
  • its broadcasting, by radio, cable or satellite;
  • its translation into other languages; and
  • its adaptation, such as a novel into a film screenplay.

Many creative works protected by copyright require mass distribution, communication and financial investment for their dissemination (for example, publications, sound recordings and films). Hence creators often sell the rights to their works to individuals or companies better able to market the works in return for compensation in the form of payments and/or royalties (compensation based on a percentage of revenues generated by the work).

The economic rights relating to copyright are of limited duration – as provided for in the relevant WIPO treaties – beginning with the creation and fixation of the work, and lasting for not less than 50 years after the creator's death. National law may establish longer terms of protection. This term of protection enables both creators and their heirs and successors to benefit financially for a reasonable period. Copyright protection also includes moral rights, meaning the right to claim authorship of a work, and the right to oppose changes to the work that could harm the creator's reputation

Related rights – rights related to copyright – encompass rights that are similar or identical to those of copyright, although they are sometimes more limited and of shorter duration. The beneficiaries of related rights are:

  • performing artists (such as actors and musicians) in their performances;
  • producers of phonograms (for example, compact discs) in their sound recordings;
  • broadcasting organizations in their radio and television programs.

According to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, copyright protection is obtained automatically without the need for registration or other formalities. However, many national copyright offices and some laws provide for registration of works. This can facilitate, for example, questions involving disputes over ownership or creation, financial transactions, sales, assignments and transfer of rights.

Rights provided under copyright can be enforced by right holders through a variety of methods and forums, including civil action suits, administrative remedies and criminal prosecution. Injunctions, orders requiring destruction of infringing items and orders for inspection of premises or at customs points are among the sanctions that may be imposed.

Protection of copyright and related rights helps foster human creativity and innovation by giving authors, artists and other creators incentives in the form of recognition and fair economic reward. The existence and enforceability of rights, especially to prevent unauthorized copying or piracy, allows individuals and companies to invest more confidently in the creation, development and global dissemination of their works. This in turn helps to increase access to and enhance the enjoyment of culture, knowledge and entertainment the world over, and also stimulates economic and social development.

Many owners of creative works do not have the ability means to pursue the legal and administrative enforcement of copyright, especially given the increasingly global use of literary, musical and performance rights. As a result, the establishment of collective management organizations or societies (CMOs) is a growing trend in many countries. These societies can provide their members with efficient administrative support and legal expertise in, for example, collecting, managing and disbursing royalties gained from the national and international use of a work.

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