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Copyright Law Principles for Authors

Uriel is an intellectual property lawyer, a fiction writer, and a language enthusiast.

What is copyright law and how does it apply to you?

What is copyright law and how does it apply to you?

Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, names, and images used in commerce.

Intellectual property rights are divided into two main categories: industrial property and copyright. While industrial property protects innovations, trademarks, and industrial designs, copyright is the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish, or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic, or musical work.

Copyright law can thus be defined as a set of rules that protect original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium.

The following most frequent questions regarding copyright protection will be addressed:

  • Which rights does copyright protection confer?
  • Must a work be registered to be deemed copyrighted?
  • How long does copyright last?
  • Are there any limitations to copyright?
  • What is the concept of ownership in copyright law?
  • How different is licensing from assignment?
  • Is plagiarism a copyright infringement?

It is important to know that each country has its copyright law. Even though the principles mentioned in this article are found in most countries' copyright texts, there may be minute differences from one legal text to another.

Copyright protection provides two categories of rights:

  1. Moral Rights: They include the right to claim ownership of the work - also known as the right of paternity - and the right to object to any distortion or modification of the work which would be prejudicial to the author's honor or reputation - often referred to as the right of integrity.
  2. Economic Rights: They allow the right owners to derive financial rewards from the use of their works. Unlike the moral rights which belong solely to the owner, economic rights may be transferred.

Note that neighboring rights, associated with copyright, protect the rights of performers, sound recorders, and broadcasters.

It is generally agreed that copyright protection starts as soon as a work is created, regardless of whether or not it is registered. The only requirement is that the form of expression of the work must be an original creation of the author.

Nonetheless, registration with a national office of Intellectual Property constitutes an official proof of ownership that can be helpful in copyright litigation.

It usually lasts for the duration of the lifetime of the author plus a certain number of years. In Canada for instance, the rule is "life-plus-fifty", which means the copyright will be valid for up to fifty years after the author's demise, then will enter the public domain. However, there are exceptions to that rule, which include but are not limited to, Government works and joint authorship.

Copyright protects only creative ideas in tangible form. Thus, it does not include ideas, factual information, plots, characters' names, or themes. It equally does not protect creations that have already fallen into the public domain.

There is no copyright in ideas. It's just about how words are expressed.

— Mark Stephens

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In principle, the owner of a work is the creator or author of that work.

However, this is not always the case. For example, a full-time employee who authors a work for his company in the course of his job is generally not considered the owner of that work, unless otherwise agreed between the parties in the employment contract.

Again, when a person pays another to create something for them, the creator remains the owner of the work, unless both parties enter a contract that includes an assignment clause.

In the same way, purchasing a creation does not give the buyer ownership of copyright; it rather gives the purchaser a license to make use of the work.

Note also that posting a work online does not remove its copyright protection, nor does it make it available to the public for free use.

Ownership can be passed on, but the original author remains the same

Ownership can be passed on, but the original author remains the same

Licensing & Assignment

An author may transfer the economic rights in his work to an individual or a company in return for payments called royalties. A transfer of copyright may either be an assignment or a licensing.

Assignment takes place when the right owner transfers all or some of their rights to another party, such that the assignee becomes the new copyright owner. Copyright rights are divisible, so it is possible to have multiple rights owners for the same work.

Licensing occurs when an author grants permission to another to use their work for a specific purpose, but they keep ownership and maintain their rights. An illustration of licensing would be an author of a novel giving permission to a publisher to produce and distribute copies of their novel.

Plagiarism is a serious offense in the copyright realm

Plagiarism is a serious offense in the copyright realm


Plagiarism is presenting someone else's work or ideas as though they were yours, that is, without giving credit to their true author.

Though plagiarism breaks moral and ethical codes of conduct, it does not qualify as copyright infringement and is not an offense. A violation of copyright applies when a specific form of expression - an image, a bulk of sentences taken word for word, etc.- is copied, whereas plagiarism occurs when ideas or insubstantial parts of another's work, are copied.

What an Author Must Know

In all, an author must be aware of the general principles of copyright law applicable in their country, most especially the rules governing ownership, transfer, and various forms of copyright infringement.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Uriel Eliane


Uriel Eliane (author) from Toronto on August 27, 2020:

Thanks a lot for your comment, Shauna! I'm glad you could get some clarification on a thing or two.

Ghostwriting is, I believe, an interesting concept to study under Copyright law. In most cases, especially when there is a contract to that effect, the ghostwriter does not maintain copyright over the work, while the user (or buyer) is considered the author and the copyright owner. However, if there is no contract or a poorly written contract between the parties, the writer could successfully sue the user and be acknowledged as the intellectual property owner of the work and/or be awarded some compensation by the court. But again, the best way to protect both parties and outline their responsibilities would definitely be through a contract.

I hope this helps!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 27, 2020:

Uriel, thank you for clarifying the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. I, and I think many of us, was under the impression they are one and the same. Apparently, this isn't so.

Where does ghostwriting come into play in the copyright laws? Does the writer of the work maintain copyrights, while the end user assumes licensing rights? What if there is no contract between the writer and the one who has hired the writer but the writer does not get the byline? Who has rights to the intellectual property?

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 05, 2020:

Uriel, your readers, followers, and writers will gladly appreciated you. Keep up with the good work.

Uriel Eliane (author) from Toronto on June 05, 2020:

Thanks for your comment Miebakagh! It will be a pleasure to share more on the topic.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 05, 2020:

Hi, thanks for sharing. Authors like us must ensure original works are protected. This is the first time I have read an article on copy right law on HP. I want to know more. I hope you will continue to educated us on HP. Many thanks again.

Uriel Eliane (author) from Toronto on May 29, 2020:

Thank you Liz! Yes, it is an essential area for writers.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 29, 2020:

This is an important legal area for all writers. Your article is interesting and helpful. Only today I almost forgot to tick the copyright box before publishing an article.

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