The newbie's guide to copyright

— What —
is copyright?

Copyright grants a set of exclusive rights to the creator of an original work, enabling them to control how others use their works.

This means that a work can not be copied, distributed, adapted, performed, or used in any other way that violates those exclusive rights without the creator's prior consent.

Copyright is one of two types of intellectual property rights. The other is industrial property rights, which covers properties such as patents and trademarks.

Further reading: Intellectual property

— What —
types of rights are protected by copyright?


Creators' economic rights are protected by copyright, enabling them to receive compensation for other people using their work. This stems from the utilitarian rationale.


Creators' moral rights are also protected, ensuring that they are credited appropriately, and that their work and the integrity of their work is preserved. These rights stem from the author protection rationale.

"The Pirate Publisher—An International Burlesque that has the Longest Run on Record" by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, published in the February 24, 1886, issue of Puck, highlights the state of copyright laws during the late 19th century. Source

— How —
is copyright applied to my work?

Do I have to register my work every time I create something new?

Copyright applies to any original work (meaning it is unique and not a copy of someone else's work) from the moment it has been created (or "fixed", meaning it has been recorded in some way and is not just an idea). You do not need to register for protection—as soon as it has been created, your work belongs to you.

— What —
is the public domain?

The public domain consists of creative works that are not subject to copyright. It pools together all works that are freely available without use restrictions (meaning everyone can everyone to copy, share, and adapt these works), from which new creativity and knowledge can be built.

A work enters the public domain in one of four ways:

  1. Its copyright expires.

  2. It was never entitled to copyright protection.

  3. Its creator dedicates the work to the public domain before the copyright has expired.

  4. Its copyright holder has failed to comply with formalities to acquire or maintain their copyright.

A word of caution: because different countries approach copyright differently, issues might arise with when a work enters the public domain in a particular state.

Further reading: Countries' copyright lengths

— Why —
is copyright needed?

The argument for copyright is based on two different rationales: the utilitarian rationale and the author protection rationale.


If a creator's work is protected, it incentivizes them to create new works.


Copyrighting something ensures that its integrity is maintained and attribution is given to its creator.

— What —
is copyrightable?

Although the ideas in a work do not need to be original, any form of expression that is an original creation is copyrightable. This includes:

  • Literary and artistic works, such as books and other writings, speeches, lectures, drawings and paintings, photographs, and movies.
  • Translations, adaptations, musical arrangements, and alterations of literary and artistic works.
  • Collections of literary and artistic works, such as encyclopedias and anthologies.
  • (Depending on the region) applied art and industrial designs and models, and software.

— What —
is not copyrightable?

Copyright does not protect facts or ideas, only the expression of these facts or ideas.

For example, you can copyright a map of the Earth, but not its topography, so anyone can make a map of the Earth.

These protections are based on Article 2 of the Berne Convention. The Berne Convention was first signed in 1886 and has since been adopted by 176 countries.

Further reading: Berne Convention
Further reading: Parties to international copyright agreements

— Are —
there limits to copyright?

Yes, there are some exceptions in copyright.

Not all uses of a work require prior permission, and these exceptions come down to balancing the interests of both the creator (or copyright owner) and the public. This is commonly known as fair use or fair dealing.


Whether something is fair use depends on several factors:

  • The nature and purpose of the usage,
  • The nature of the work being used,
  • How much of the work is being used in relation to the work as a whole, and
  • The likely effect of the use on the potential commercial value of the work.

Examples of limits to copyright protection can be found in the Berne Convention. Article 9 of the Convention states that parties may "permit the reproduction of such works in certain special cases, provided that such reproduction does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author." Article 10, meanwhile, mentions allowances for quotations of works and using works for teaching purposes, with an attribution provision.

Further reading: Understanding Copyright and Related Rights   by the World Intellectual Property Organization

— Is —
an invention copyrighted?

As discussed above, not all creations are copyrighted. Industrial property is protected by a different set of laws. Copyright and industrial property can be differentiated as follows.

  • Copyright protects the expressions of ideas, not the ideas themselves.
  • Industrial property protections usually deal with ideas for new solutions to technical problems.
  • On a basic level, copyright can be considered to cover literary and artistic works.
  • On a basic level, industrial property can be considered to cover inventions.
  • Copyright usually protects works for the lifetime of the creator and an additional 50+ years.
  • Because protecting an invention gives its inventor a monopoly over the right to exploit it, industrial property protections tend to be short in duration (perhaps around 20 years).
  • Creative works do not need to be registered to be protected by copyright.
  • For an invention to be protected, it must be made known to the public; ie. it needs to be registered.
  • Copyrighted works include books, paintings, photos, movies, lectures, translations, encyclopedias, and computer programs.
  • Industrial property includes patents, trademarks, industrial designs, service marks, circuit layout designs, commercial names, and geographical indications.

A note on the differences between trademarks and patents, both of which are considered industrial property.


Protecting trademarks means protecting the public from being confused about the source of a product. It allows a business to protect its identity and reputation, by preventing other businesses from using their trademarks. Examples of trademarks include the Apple logo and Burberry tartan pattern.


Patents provide inventors with a time-limited monopoly over the use of their inventions. It gives inventors the exclusive right to make, use, and/or sell their inventions. Examples of patents include the MP3 and JPEG file formats, and Astrium's agriculturally focused sunlight-redirecting satellite.

Siti Nurleily Marliana and Joaquim Baeta. This guide is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.