Frequently Asked Questions: Copyright

Basics

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.

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.

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.

Most copyright laws state that the rights owner has the economic right to authorize or prevent certain uses in relation to a work or, in some cases, to receive remuneration for the use of his work (such as through collective management). The economic rights owner of a work can prohibit or authorize:

  • 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, 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.

Examples of widely recognized moral rights include the right to claim authorship of a work and the right to oppose changes to a work that could harm the creator's reputation.

In the majority of countries, and according to the Berne Convention, copyright protection is obtained automatically without the need for registration or other formalities.

Most countries nonetheless have a system in place to allow for the voluntary registration of works. Such voluntary registration systems can help solve disputes over ownership or creation, as well as facilitate financial transactions, sales, and the assignment and/or transfer of rights.

Please note that WIPO does not offer a copyright registration system or a searchable copyright database. Find out more about copyright registration and documentation systems.

The term “work” is used in the copyright context to refer to a wide range of intellectual creations, from novels to architecture, computer programs, and more. For a more detailed list of works that can be protected by copyright, refer to the question “What can be protected using copyright?”.

In the past, some countries had legislation in place that required the copyright holder to comply with certain formalities in order to receive copyright protection. One of those formalities was to include an indication that copyright had been claimed, such as by using the symbol ©. Currently, very few countries still impose formalities on copyright, therefore the use of such symbols is no longer a legal requirement. Nonetheless, many right owners still include the symbol © as a highly visible way to emphasize that that work is protected by copyright and that all rights are reserved, as opposed to a less restrictive license.

Economic rights have a time limit, which can vary according to national law. In those countries which are members of the Berne Convention, the time limit should be equal to or longer than 50 years after the creator’s death. Longer periods of protection may however be provided at the national level. Contact your national IP office to find out more or visit WIPO Lex to consult national legislation.

Protecting your work

Firstly, copyright protection is automatic in all states party to the Berne Convention (refer to the question “Can I register copyright?”). Whilst there may be nuances to the particular national laws applicable in these states, in general there is a high degree of harmony. You can consult national laws and treaties using WIPO Lex.

When we consider states that are not party to the Berne Convention, you must remember that copyright laws are territorial. In other words, they apply within the country in which they were passed. As such, if you wish to protect your work internationally, you must research and make sure that you comply with the relevant legal requirements in the country(ies) in which you wish your work to be protected.

Once you are the right owner of a work, you can provide authorization for others to use or exploit your work. Such authorizations are commonly referred to as “licenses” and may or may not entail paying the rights owner. Naturally, it is always recommended to seek expert legal advice before negotiating a licensing agreement.

If you wish to license your work to users such as broadcasters, publishers, or even entertainment establishments (i.e. bars, nightclubs), joining a collective management organization (CMO) may be a good option. CMOs monitor uses of works on behalf of creators and publishers and are in charge of negotiating licenses and collecting remuneration. They are particularly common in the field of musical and literary works where there may be a large number of users of the same work and it would be difficult both for the owner of rights and the users to seek specific authorization for every single use and to monitor them.

Computer programs and other types of software are considered as literary works for copyright purposes. Therefore they receive automatic protection without the need for registration. In some countries, the process of voluntary registration for software may differ from that for other types of work.

There is no searchable international registry of copyright-protected works.

This is because, as a general rule, copyright protection is automatic and does not depend on registration. In some countries, however you may encounter a voluntary copyright registry/depositary and registering your work can be a smart choice as it would considerably assist you in the case of a dispute, for example over the ownership of the work.

Although it may not affect copyright protection, some countries do require a deposit of samples of printed materials published in that country. Contact your national IP office to find out more.

Before taking any steps, you should carefully assess whether the reproduction is in fact an infringement of your copyright (refer to the question on limitations and exceptions to copyright). If you consider that there is an infringement of your right, you should try to identify the person responsible. If it is impossible or inappropriate to solve the problem by informal means, you can seek a legal remedy from a court or other authority.

It is usually possible to bring a claim before a civil court for monetary compensation and also to prevent the continuation or repetition of the infringement. Before taking this step though it is often advisable – and even compulsory in some states –to first send a formal notification to the alleged infringer, requesting him to stop the infringement and/or to pay compensation.

Alternatively, if the unauthorized reproduction amounts to the criminal offence of copyright piracy, a complaint may be submitted to the police, public prosecutor or other competent authority in accordance with applicable local law.

In some cases, the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (such as mediation, arbitration, expert determination, neutral evaluation, etc.) can provide a valuable alternative to court procedures, as they may lead to a settlement of the dispute in a simpler, faster and cheaper way.

If the unauthorized reproduction of the work is being made available through the internet, it may be possible to notify the relevant internet service provider, asking it to prevent access to the infringing copy. Such procedures are generally known as “notice-and-take-down (procedures)”.

If you are a member of a Collective Management Organization (CMO), it will often be enough to request it to take the appropriate steps. If you are not, it is up to you to act in order to protect your rights. It is often advisable, in such a case, to instruct a lawyer to do so on your behalf.

Collective management organizations (CMOs) monitor uses of works on behalf of creators and are in charge of negotiating licenses and collecting remuneration. They are particularly common in the field of musical and literary works where there may be a large number of users of the same work and it would be difficult both for the owner of rights and the users to seek specific authorization for every single use and to monitor them.

WIPO Lex provides easy access to intellectual property legislation from a wide range of countries and regions as well as to treaties on intellectual property.

Many national or regional intellectual property offices also provide information concerning national or regional legislation on their websites. View a list of links to national and regional intellectual property offices to find out more.

Using other people's work

The first owner of copyright to a work is generally the original creator or author of the work. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. In some countries, for example, the economic rights to a copyright work initially rest with the person/organization employing the creator. In other countries the economic rights are deemed to be automatically assigned or transferred to the employer. Contact your national IP office to find out more about the particular national situation that interests you.

In general you always need authorization (this may take the form of licensing or an assignment of rights) before using a protected work. For certain uses, the authorization may come from a collective management organization instead of directly from the right owner, for example the authorization to use a song at a public concert.

You may be allowed to use a protected work without any kind of authorization under two sets of circumstances:

  • Limitations and exceptions may exist at the national level, allowing you to use the work.
  • Works can also sometimes be made publicly available under specific conditions or licenses that allow certain uses. When using such works, attention must be paid to the specific conditions of the licenses in order to identify exactly what is and isn’t permitted by the right owner. There are several such licenses in common usage, e.g. the Creative Commons license, MIT License, the Mozilla Public License, and many others.

If you are in doubt, it is always advisable to speak to an intellectual property attorney.

As most countries do not impose any formalities on the provision of copyright protection, locating the rights owner of a work can sometimes be difficult. Finding the rights owner of a specific work in a territory is usually possible if you contact: the author or the publisher or a work, the collective management organization, the local registry of works, or the national copyright office. Such organizations may have databases that contain valuable information about ownership of copyrighted works.

Collective management organizations may also assist you in obtaining authorization from the right owner of a work. You can use the online database provided by the Collecting Societies Handbook (a joint WIPO and Baker & McKenzie project) to help you track down the relevant collective management organization.

In some cases it may be possible to use works that are not in the public domain without needing to request authorization from or remunerate the author or the right owner. This can occur if such uses are covered by limitations and exceptions in the national legislation. Examples of limitations and exceptions include:

  • the quotation of works;
  • the use of news of the day; or
  • the creation of accessible formats for print disabled people.

Find out more about limitations and exceptions.

Differing legal systems mean that under some systems, a clear list of limitations and exceptions to copyright is provided, whilst in others you may only find a general clause. Such general clauses are frequently known as “fair use” or “fair dealing” clauses.

When a work is said to be in the public domain (also referred to as “commons”) what is meant is that the work no longer has a right owner (of the economic rights). This is usually because the term of copyright protection has expired. For example, the economic rights over the famous poem Odyssey, written by Homer, have lapsed and the work can be used or exploited without the need to obtain authorization or remunerate the right owner. In some countries, authors can also voluntarily include their works in the public domain through a procedure known as “voluntary relinquishment”. Find out more about works in the public domain.

A common misperception is that works published on the Internet, including on social media platforms, are in the public domain and may therefore be widely used by anybody without the authorization of the right owner. Any works protected by copyright or related rights – ranging from musical compositions, to multimedia products, newspaper articles, and audiovisual productions – for which the time of protection has not expired, are protected regardless of whether they are published on paper or digitally. In each case you should, generally, seek the authorization of the right owner prior to use.

Some websites contain a general license that may exempt you from requiring a direct authorization for certain uses. Such licenses may authorize only certain uses, for example some non-commercial uses. In practice, with regards to a text publicly available on a blog or a website for example, you may not use the text unless:

  • such intended use is covered by the general license granted through that website;
  • the use is covered by a copyright limitation or exception; or
  • you have obtained authorization for such use.

Similarly, authorization is required if your SME is engaged in publishing or making available copyright works, sound recordings, broadcasts or performances through your website.

Related or neighboring rights are a separate set of copyright-type rights given to certain persons or bodies that help make works available to the public. The beneficiaries of related rights in national legislations are usually performers, producers of phonograms, and broadcasting organizations.

The terms can also refer to rights given to persons or bodies, who produce subject matter which, while not qualifying as works under the copyright systems of some countries, contain sufficient creativity or technical and organizational skill to justify recognition via a right similar to copyright.

Some laws make clear that the exercise of related rights should leave intact, and in no way affect, the protection of copyright.

More questions?

If you couldn't find an answer to your question on this page or through the Copyright homepage, then feel free to contact us.

Disclaimer: The questions and answers provided on this page serve a purely informative purpose and are not a legal point of reference. They do not necessarily represent the official position of WIPO or its member states.