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What are the Basic Copyright Laws?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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Copyright laws restrict the use of creative works such as books, film and music. These laws define the rights of creators and owners, determining who can buy, sell, copy or distribute creative works. These laws also affect derivative works, pieces based on or growing from earlier works. Each country has its own laws, and the details vary from one jurisdiction to the next, but the basic application of copyright laws is fairly consistent.

Defining a creative work can be tricky. Under copyright laws, creative work must be tangible, with an actual form. Books, paintings and recordings are all creative works and are subject to copyright laws. Ideas and unrecorded conversations have no tangible form and are not considered creative works. Most often, copyright laws are enforced only when the creative work has some perceived monetary value.

Creativity is another essential component of a creative work. Purely factual material is not subject to copyright law. The presentation of those facts can, however, be copyrighted, meaning that an author can collect information from copyrighted sources but must present those facts in a new form.

Initially, creators have exclusive rights to their own works, but they may give or sell these rights to another party. In some cases, the creator retains ownership of the creation but offers permission to copy the work. This permission to make copies might be limited in some fashion, for instance, restricted to certain media, a specific period of time or geographic areas. Specifics of any copyright agreement are typically outlined in a contract.

In other cases, creators surrender all claim to the work, typically selling all rights to another party. This party becomes the new owner and can copy or alter the work in any way seen fit. Creators are no longer to copy or sell these works, and they have no say in how they will be used in the future.

One important exception to copyright laws is called "fair use" or "fair dealing." This exception makes it legal to use a portion of a creative work in limited circumstances. For example, a film reviewer might include a clip in the review. If permission were required to use a copy, critics might be unable to obtain clips for films that were given unfavorable reviews. The fair use doctrine allows the critic to be more objective and to give the public an honest assessment.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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