Different Worlds: Copyright Considerations

For serious information about international copyright legislation, I recommend you go to the web site of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) at http://www.wipo.org. WIPO administers all international conventions and treaties regarding the protection of intellectual property (patents, trademarks, copyrights, etc).

What is copyright?

Essentially, it's the right the creator of an original artistic work has to control what is done with it. If you write a book or article, or paint a picture or take a photograph, you own the copyright in that work (assuming you haven't done it under a contract that assigns the copyright to someone else). You don't have to register the copyright to own it. As soon as you publish the work in some public and fixed way, you own the copyright, and anyone who copies and uses the work without your consent is technically in breach of that right.

It has been argued that web designers probably own the copyright in the page designs they create, or that you own the copyright in emails you send. Similarly with any original material you create to put on your web pages, for example graphics or text content. This would mean that, if you found that someone had pinched some of your pages, or used emails that you'd sent them on a web page, without getting your consent, you probably have the right to sue them for breach of copyright. Note, however, that something like a compilation of useful links is, in itself, not subject to copyright. What might be copyrightable is whatever is original about the list - perhaps the selection and arrangement, or you may have written an original review of each site listed.

Defending your copyright

Even if you do own the copyright in something, however, you have to ask yourself how seriously you would be affected by the material being copied and used by someone else. For instance: if you are working to build a serious reputation in a particular area of expertise, and the material in question is important in that respect, then you might decide that the trouble and expense of defending your copyright is worthwhile. The original concept of copyright, and the point to copyright legislation is to protect an author's economic and moral rights to their own work. That can include the right to protect your reputation in an area of expertise by preventing others from distorting work you have produced.

We do need to maintain a sense of proportion in all this though. I would be extremely angry if someone pinched, lock stock and barrel, some web pages that I had spent weeks putting together, but I would have to ask myself if the content of those pages was really worth more than firing off some angry emails or letters to the person who had done it.

You don't need to do anything in order to own the copyright on your own original work. Proving that you do, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. If being able to prove your ownership is important, then you need to contact your national copyright agency or a lawyer for more information on how you should do so. Legislation these days will always lag some way behind technological innovation, so there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to protecting copyright of ephemeral information that exists in electronic form. Almost all methods of ensuring that you can prove your ownership of copyright to specific material will involve some sort of financial cost, so you really do have to compare the cost of protection with the likely cost of not safeguarding your copyright - only you can decide if the cost is worth it.

The Berne Convention

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886) governs the international protection of "copyright and neighbouring rights". Originally subscribed to by only 10 countries, there are now over 121 signatory countries, and the Convention has been added to and amended over the years, sometimes to take account of technological developments which weren't around at the time of the original Convention.

The Berne Convention was originally designed to provide copyright protection for "literary and artistic works"; that is, original creations in the fields of literature and the arts. The key is "original creation". The WIPO web site lists fairly comprehensively what is, and is not, covered by copyright. Another useful list of protected and not protected categories of works (particularly oriented towards the USA, but generally applicable to other countries) can be found in the FAQ published in the web site of the Intellectual Property Law Group at http://www.iplg.com. (Note: This is a commercial site. I have no links whatsoever with them; I just think that their FAQ on this subject is clear and informative).

The Convention provides that copyright protection is not conditional on compliance with any formality; that is, it is automatic, and not dependent on any process of registration.

Caution: In those countries which offer a formal copyright registration process (for example, the USA, Canada, etc,) you may find that the process of taking legal action against a copyright infringement is made a lot easier and potentially less expensive if you follow the national registration process. This doesn't mean that non-registration = non-ownership of the copyright; simply that the level of financial damages you might be able to claim in the appropriate court of law may be determined according to whether, and when, you registered your copyright. If you are seriously concerned about protecting your copyright on specific material, you should check with the appropriate government agency for more information about how the law is applied in your country.

In this context, too, the placing of a copyright notice on your work (the copyright symbol followed by the year of creation or publication and the name of the copyright owner) while generally not required by law, is certainly recommended by most authorities as a clear indication to others that you own the copyright - they cannot then claim that they were unaware of your ownership.

The Convention also provides that works originating in any of the signatory countries (that is, the work is by a national of one of these countries or was first published in one of these countries) must be given, in any of the other countries that are signatories to the Convention, the same protection as they would grant to works by their own nationals. So if you are a national of the United Kingdom, for example, your copyright in a particular work should be afforded the same level of protection in, say, Mauritius, as a similar type of work by a Mauritian (sp?) national.

Some countries offer protection for certain aspects of copyright that goes beyond the minimum laid down by the Berne Convention. For example, generally the copyright in a work lasts until 50 years after the author's death, but some countries have extended that to 70 years. However, all countries that have signed up to the Convention should provide at least the minimum protection as laid down in the Convention.

The following countries were, as of 2 March 1997, signatories to the Convention (see the WIPO web site for the most up to date list of signatory countries):

Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Holy See, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Important disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV! All of the above is offered as (hopefully) helpful information, and should not not NOT be regarded as accurate legal advice. Do consult a qualified legal advisor if you need to make decisions based on how the law applies in your part of the world.


I am a member of
The HTML Writers Guild

Support WaSP - The Web Standards Project

Best viewed with ANY browser!  Keep web pages browser independent. Support the Any Browser campaign.

Bobby Worldwide approved A

Valid HTML 4.01

Valid CSS

© 1999-2003 Donna Smillie <dms@zetnet.co.uk>