Crash course on copyrights: What copyright protects

A work is protected by copyright if it is a literary or artistic work. This is quite a broad expression, and almost all products of creative and original effort are copyrighted. Note that copyright protects only specific expressions of an idea, not the idea itself.

A collection of facts may be copyrighted, assuming there is some creative activity involved in compiling the collection. Several countries provide a separate protection regime for collections of facts that qualify as "databases", but this regime has nothing to do with copyright.

Literary and artistic works

According to the Berne Convention, a work is protected by copyright if it is a literary or artistic work. This expression covers almost any creative production. Some well known examples are books, articles, paintings, photos, music, and movies. However, copyright also covers 3-dimensional productions such as statues or buildings.

The length or artistic merit of a work is irrelevant. Even a boring book or a drawing made by a toddler is protected by copyright. A slogan can also be protected, although it would have to be quite original to qualify as "literary or artistic".

A work must be original to qualify for protection. This requirement basically means that it may not be derived from another work. It may resemble that other work, for example because it was written in the same style. A work is original as long as as it was created independently from that other work (in other words, no material was copied from it).

Computer programs

There has been some debate as to whether computer programs should be protected by copyright. Since there is a large amount of effort involved in creating a computer program, and the act of programming may require a large amount of creativity, one can argue that the act of programming is analogous to the act of writing or composing, and hence should result in like protection. For this reason, but largely also because the computer industry wanted cheap and fast protection for their works, by now almost all countries recognize computer programs as works protected by copyright.

It is unclear, however, to what extent computer programs are protected. For example:

These issues are very complex, both legally and technically, and as of yet there is no clear consensus.

Expressions of ideas

What copyright protects is not an idea, but only the expression of it. The ideas behind a work, or even the facts embodied in the work, are free for all to use. So, it is legal to take the plot from somebody else's mystery novel, and write your own mystery novel based on that plot. The distinction between idea and expression may be difficult. When does something stop being a plot, and start being an element of the novel itself?

The expression must be perceptible. For this reason, some countries have the requirement that the work must be fixed in a tangible form to qualify for protection. This could be for example by writing it down on paper or by recording it on a compact disc. Publication is not a requirement. A manuscript in a vault qualifies for copyright protection. And even if the single specimen of a work is lost, the copyright remains in force. No one but the copyright holder may make a replacement!

Collections of facts

Facts are not copyrighted, but a collection of facts as such may be copyrighted, assuming there is some creative activity involved in compiling the collection. So, a list of the most common English words would be copyrighted, since there is creative effort involved in deciding whether a word is common. However, this of course does not mean that the words in that list are copyrighted themselves, or that no one else may make a list of common English words. This is even permitted if the two lists are substantially the same, as long as you don't copy the original list or take that as a basis for your own work.

Some collections of facts require a lot of effort, but no creativity to build. For example, a list of all American state capitals, or an electronic database with all Dutch names and telephone numbers. Such collections are not protected by copyright. They may be copied freely. However, in some countries a separate regime for database protection exists if a substantial investment in effort, time or money was made to create the collection.

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