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Copyright Basics

The ‘top 10’ FAQs, including what is copyright? How long does it last? Is my copyright recognized in other countries?

What is copyright and what does it protect?

Copyright is the legal protection given to certain types of original works, such as literary, artistic, dramatic and musical works, sound recordings and performances. These categories encompass a wide range of works, including books, articles, posters, manuals, diagrams, figures and graphs, as well as CDs, DVDs, software, databases and websites. It gives the copyright owner exclusive rights to control the copying and dissemination of their works and can be a very valuable asset.

What rights does copyright give you?

Copyright gives the copyright owner a number of exclusive rights, such as the right to copy, perform or communicate their work to the public and the right to publish a translation. This means that, for example, other people cannot post your work online or copy your poster unless they have your consent or fall within one of the exceptions within the Copyright Act.

I’ve got a great idea / discovered some great data. Is it protected by copyright?

No, not unless you reduce the idea to some sort of fixed, tangible form. Copyright does not protect ideas, only the expression of ideas. This means that things like business concepts, plots and algorithms are not protected by copyright. However, the tangible expression of those ideas in an article, manual, flow-chart or software, for example, would be protected.

Similarly, copyright does not apply to facts or information, so your data alone will not get copyright protection. But if the data is expressed in a table, figure or an article, that table, figure or article will be protected by copyright.

How is copyright different from other intellectual property, such as patents and trade-marks?

Copyright does not protect inventions, brand names or slogans. Inventions are protected by patents. Brand names and slogans are protected by trade-marks. Although there can be some overlap between the copyright and these other types of intellectual property, there are different laws and procedures for each with substantially different implications.

How long does copyright last?

How long copyright lasts depends on which country you are in. In Canada, copyright generally lasts for the life of the author, plus 50 years. By contrast, in the U.S. and Europe, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

How does copyright affect teaching?

Copyright can affect what kinds of uses you can make of other people’s work in your teaching. For example, if you want to post someone else’s work on your online classroom or show a documentary to students, you may need to get permission from the copyright owner. There is an educational exception in the Copyright Act and the university also has a licence with Access Copyright, a collective representing copyright owners of literary works, so that a lot of different uses are permissible, but there are some limits and conditions. For more information about copyright and teaching, please refer to the Copyright in the Classroom FAQ’s.

Can I use other people’s copyright in my research?

Most research activities should be covered by the fair dealing exception. This exception provides that you can use a work for research or private study purposes, provided your use is a ‘fair dealing’. To make sure your use of the work is considered fair, you should try to limit your use to only what is strictly necessary for your purposes. Sometimes a good guide to what is fair is to ask yourself whether you would be comfortable with someone else using your work in the same way. If you’re not sure, contact MILO's Copyright Officer for more information.

What is ‘fair dealing’?

Fair dealing is an exception in the Copyright Act which allows you to use other people’s copyright for the purpose of research, private study, criticism or review, provided that what you do with the work is ‘fair’. Whether something is ‘fair’ will depend on the circumstances. Courts will normally consider factors such as:

    • the purpose of your dealing (Is it commercial or research / educational?)
    • the amount of the dealing (How much was copied? The whole work or only small, insignificant portions?)
    • the character of the dealing (What was done with the work? How often was the work used? If it was distributed, how many people received it?)
    • alternatives to the dealing (Was the work necessary for the end result? Could the purpose have been achieved without using the work?)
    • the nature of the work (Is there a public interest in its dissemination?)
    • the economic impact on the work (Is the copyright owner deprived of legitimate economic benefit because of the dealing?)  

In addition, if you want to copy a work for the purpose of criticism or review, you must mention the source and author of the work for it to be considered fair dealing.

If you are using the work for research, private study, criticism or review, and your use of the work is reasonable in the circumstances, taking into account the above factors, you should be covered by the fair dealing exception.

What is meant by ‘the public domain’?

The public domain is the field of works in which copyright has expired or where the copyright owner has made a clear declaration that the work is not subject to copyright. You should be careful about assuming that something is public domain. For example, although the copyright in Shakespeare’s plays expired long ago, many of the published editions of his plays are still protected by copyright because the publishers have added original materials (such as footnotes, prefaces etc.) and have used skill and judgment in arranging the text. This creates a new copyright in their edition.

Is my copyright recognized in other countries?

Generally, yes. Most countries have signed an international convention under which they have agreed to give the same copyright protection to foreigners as they do to their own nationals. So, for example, a work produced by a Canadian citizen in Canada will be protected by copyright in the U.S. and will get the same protection as a U.S. citizen would receive. Of course, there are some countries which have not signed the convention, or which do not have comprehensive copyright laws, or whose laws will differ from Canadian standards, but generally your work should receive some copyright protection overseas.