Copyright Definition

Learn about copyright laws in Canada and the U.S.

"Copyright" spelled out and highlighted amidst various typeset letters
••• Florian Hiltmair/Getty Images

The definition of "copyright" is literally in the word itself. It is the right to copy. It describes the legal rights of the owner of intellectual property. A person who owns the copyright to a work, such as song lyrics or an original drawing, is the only person who can copy that work or grant permission to someone else to copy it.

According to Canada's Copyright Act, copyright is "the sole right to produce or reproduce a work or a substantial part of it in any form. It includes the right to perform the work or any substantial part of it or, in the case of a lecture, to deliver it. If the work is unpublished, copyright includes the right to publish the work or any substantial part of it."

The definition given by the U.S. Copyright Office is similar, adding that it "literally means the right to copy but has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work."

In addition to being able to assign their copyright, license it, or use it for funding, copyright holders may also collect royalties when others use their copyrighted work.

How Is Copyright Granted?

Copyright differs from other intellectual property in that copyright is automatically created when a person creates a copyrightable work that is an original literary (including software code), dramatic, musical, or artistic work. There is no need to register such an original work in order for it to be copyrighted. As soon as an individual creates an original piece of art, for example, they have an automatic copyright on the resulting work.

Both the U.S. and Canadian governments, however, recommend registering your copyright in order to provide an extra layer of protection. Your copyright certificate can be used in a court of law to provide evidence of ownership, making your legal case stronger.

This protection even extends internationally to a degree. Unlike other intellectual property rights, copyrights are automatically applicable to many countries that have copyright treaties with the U.S. and Canada.

Copyright Infringement

Penalties for copyright infringement can be quite severe, depending on the nature of the offense. These can include fines of up to $150,000 in the U.S. and $1 million in Canada, plus attorney and court costs. Additionally, any items that violate copyright can be impounded, and the offender may be eligible for jail time.

Because of these harsh consequences for copyright infringement, it's important to know copyright laws—both to protect your own rights and avoid infringing on those of others.

Exactly What Can be Protected by Copyright?

Copyright law applies to a broad range of intellectual property including:

  • Writings of almost any kind—books, articles, reviews, poems, essays, blogs, etc., whether online or in print, and plays or writings for movies or broadcast
  • Website contents—including text, pictures, graphics, and even the page layout
  • Computer programs—including business, personal, and entertainment
  • Motion pictures or audio—movies, TV programs, podcasts, etc.
  • Music—including lyrics and instrumentals, both recorded and performed
  • Artistic works—visual arts of any kind including paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc., but also including graphics, maps, charts, and photography
  • Original architectural designs—including designs for municipal, commercial, and residential buildings and ​structures such as bridges, highways, and tunnels

As the U.S. Copyright Office defines it, "Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed." Essentially, for something to be copyrightable, it must have some sort of tangible expression.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

Copyright duration varies from country to country. In Canada, copyright lasts for the duration of the creator's life plus 50 years from the end of the calendar year of the creator's death. In the United States and the United Kingdom, copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

A Famous Copyright Case

In the computing world, one of the most famous copyright infringement cases involved Apple filing suit against Microsoft in 1988 after various releases of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

Apple claimed that the graphical user interface (GUI) of the Macintosh operating system (OS) was protected by copyright and that the similarity of some aspects of Windows constituted copyright infringement. The suit was further complicated when Xerox filed a lawsuit against Apple claiming that Apple had used elements of Xerox's GUI design in the Macintosh OS.

The courts rejected Apple's claims based on the following conclusions:

  1. Apple had previously licensed individual elements of the GUI design to Microsoft.
  2. Other elements of the GUI design came from Xerox (and were therefore not original).
  3. The "look and feel" of the GUI could not be copyrighted.

This case reinforces the definition of copyright put forth here. The court ruled that Apple could not claim copyright protection for ideas, but only their specific expression. If you're wondering whether to seek a copyright for your own creation, or if you are at risk of violating someone else's, start by examining whether you're dealing with a tangible good or work. If so, it's worth doing some further research.