Copyright is an important aspect of writing and creating content. It’s also a concept often confused by writers themselves.
What is Copyright? How can it protect your written works? How does awareness of Copyright save you, as a content creator, from getting into trouble with the law?
Creative works can exist in many forms:
- a photograph, image or pictorial work;
- sound recordings and musical works (a tune or song including its lyrics);
- dramatic works (motion pictures, theatre productions, pantomime or choreography);
- architectural plans and drawings; and
- for authors, this refers to their literary works: novels, pieces of fiction, essays, articles, blogposts, poetry, graphic novels/comics and so on.
Copyright is a concept created in law to govern the relationship between the creator (Author) and the end users (Readers) in relation to a subject creative work (the Written Works). The concept of Copyright in law allows people to use and share content, while providing an incentive to its creators, enabling them to earn income from their works while providing appropriate protection under the law.
What are my rights?
The rights granted to the author or copyright owner are:
- economic rights – the right to make money from the publishing, sharing, and performing of their works; and creating derivatives such as translations, audiobooks, digital copies, movie/tv adaptations, and merchandise;
- legal rights to sue anyone who breaches these rights i.e. commits copyright infringement; and
- moral rights:
- paternity rights – the right to be acknowledged as the author, and
- integrity rights – the right to preserve the works from distortion or mutilation.
These rights are exclusive to the owner unless he sells them, like a situation of commissioned writing, or licenses them to another. All use without permission is considered copyright infringement. However, there are exceptions, such as to encourage learning (education), commentary, and news reporting (fair use or dealings).
Copyright is one of the types of Intellectual Properties (others being Service & Trade Marks, Patents, Trade Secrets and Industrial Designs) which, although intangible, is considered property which can be dealt with under the law such as being sold, licensed, willed or inherited.
How do I get copyright protection?
The law creates Copyright protection over a piece of creative content, provided it is original (not copied from another source), automatically as soon as it is reduced into material form (recorded or written down). An author of a story or book, for instance, is generally not required to do anything further to enjoy copyright protection over her works.
In contrast, note that a story or concept which remains in the author’s mind and has not been crystallized in writing (no matter how well planned) can never receive copyright protection. Creative works which are not reduced to material form are regarded as ideas and are not upheld by the same shield of the law. Anyone is free to come up with different versions of the same story idea (think of the numerous versions of the story of Cinderella or Dracula in movies and books) because these are mere instances of the copying of an idea. That’ll be a reminder to never blurt out that brilliant story plot the next time you have a round of roti canai with a bunch of writers!
However, the copying of the way or manner in which an idea has been presented (the use of the same or similar words, exact plot or storyline, for example) by another writer is prohibited by law, as this amounts to plagiarism or copyright infringement.
Is my copyright applicable everywhere?
Because Copyright law is territorial in nature, the rights and protections available under Copyright may defer depending on the territory (country) in which that right is being asserted. Although general concepts of Copyright seldom differ, one of the most important differences is the way that copyright disputes are upheld (for example, some countries like the USA require that copyright owners register their right for administrative purposes, to aid proof in copyright disputes).
How long does my copyright last?
Another glaring distinction is the duration of copyright protection granted to the author/maker across territories. For example, the duration of copyright held by an author of works published in USA and UK is 70 years, calculated from the end of the calendar year in which the author or the last remaining author (if there is more than one author) dies, whereas that duration is only 60 years in India, and 50 years in most other countries including Malaysia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines.
Any works that have exceeded that term becomes available for public use and sharing, subsequently referred to as works in the Public Domain. This is why classic literature such as Shakespeare is so cheap to buy in printed form, despite its brilliance. The term Public Domain also applies where the author, during his lifetime, gifts his work for general public use, i.e. has expressly waived his Copyright over it. You see this happening with some works shared under Creative Commons, and free and open-sourced programming software such as Freeworks, which have been specifically created to liberate users of the Internet.
So what do I do if someone copies my work?
Now you have copyright: does that mean you can rest on your laurels while someone copies it?
No, that right must still be enforced if you want to stop an infringer and claim compensation. As an author, you must actively assert your rights. The Courts are the upholders of your rights, so any copyright infringement must be taken up by way of a court action in the territory where the infringement occurred.
Like any other legal right, sitting idle for a long period may mean you end up waiving that right! Malaysian law, for example, requires legal action to be instituted within 6 years of the copyright infringement occurring (or is discovered). During a civil court trial, it all comes down to evidentiary proof: can you prove that the perpetrator copied your work or can he show that he had written it himself, i.e. that the offending work was original to him?
What about stuff I find on the Internet?
So, we’ve established that any content creator is entitled to copyright protection over their works. It must follow that one cannot copy any pieces of works they happen to come across and use it without the owner’s permission or license.
Common examples of blatant acts of copyright infringement are:
- copying photos from the internet and using it in your blog or as the background to your book cover;
- quoting someone else’s song lyrics or poetry in your story;
- splicing and inserting a snippet of a Hollywood movie in your book trailer which has been posted on YouTube;
- inserting an audio clip from a radio interview into your podcast.
But, if this is so wrong, why is everyone doing it so openly, you ask?
Mostly, because the copyright owner might not be bothered to take legal action against them for now. If a thief steals a cake from your bakery, you may not give chase or have them arrested, but you have every right to, correct? What if the copyright owner decides to make an example of people downloading and sharing her eBooks? She can, if her legal reach is large enough, make every owner of pirated copies cough-up settlement payment in the form of monetary damages.
Alternatively, think of it from a writer’s perspective: how would you feel if someone copied your work and passed it off as theirs? Even if they were to acknowledge your authorship, would you be happy if they went on to benefit from their post, leaving you with nothing but a nod of credit?
As a writer yourself, you must learn to assert, and respect copyright owned by other content creators. Just to err on the side of caution and to maintain integrity of your reputation (especially if you are a business owner), do the right thing: pay the small license fee to use a stock photo for your blogs; request for permission to quote a passage from your favourite song/book/movie; shoot your own movie clip or animation sequence for your book trailer; hire a model and photographer to shoot your book cover photos; hire your own book cover designer!
Remember that copyright infringement always costs. You either pay before use (a small token licensing fee or taking the painstaking and circuitous route of contacting the original author for permission – a relatively paltry sum or effort) or you pay a fortune (after being sued in Court). Look around your workspace today – how can you better protect your work and stop yourself from wrongly infringing the rights of others?
Wah so mafan.
The intricacies and nuances of Copyright Law are numerous – lawyers like me take years to master it – but I’ve touched on the basics as far as authors and writing is concerned, with the hope that it provides some illumination. I pray you’ve found this post useful and worthwhile food for thought.
If you’d like to know more about Copyright and Writers, feel free to visit my blog on this topic at www.tina-isaacs.com/copyright-writers/.
This was a guest post by Tina Isaacs: Lawyer | Author | Actor | Vocalist
Tina Isaacs is a litigation lawyer turned fiction writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is the founder of the Malaysian Writers Society. She has published numerous short stories internationally and within the region, most notably winning Runner-Up for the DK Dutt Memorial Award for Literary Excellence 2015, and having her story ‘Undercover in Tanah Firdaus’ chosen for the Short Story Collection of the 2015 SciFi Film Festival in Parramatta, Australia. Other than her qualification in law, Tina has a Master in Creative Writing from the University of Tampa, Florida, USA; is an active performer in the Malaysian musical and theatre industry; and is presently working on her debut novel, a dystopian thriller.