Copyright Law

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The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on a wide variety of legal issues in the Province of Alberta.  This service is provided by Calgary Legal Guidance funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.

The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide only general information on legal issues within the Province of Alberta. The purpose is to make you aware of your legal rights and responsibilities. This is not legal advice. If you have a legal concern and require advice, you should consult a lawyer.

This topic will discuss copyright law. Copyright gives you exclusive rights to your creation. You have the right to stop someone else from copying your work in any form without your permission.

Copyright protects the form of the work, If the work contains ideas such as a plot (play, story) or critical theory (magazine article), these ideas are not protected by copyright, only your way of expressing them is. Copyright protects music, sculpture, paintings, photographs, films, books, article, plays, television shows, movies, radio programs, architectural works, drawings, computer programs and many other kinds of work. Copyright also applies to sound recordings such as records, cassettes, talks, performers’ performances, and communication signals.

Copyright is acquired automatically when the original work is created. It is created once it is completed and resides in the fixed form used for the type of work. For example, a CAD drawing’s copyright arises when the author finally finishes it and saves it in the CAD program. If, for example, you composed and sang a song, but never recorded it or wrote down the music, your song is not copyrighted.

Ownership of copyright is complex. In some circumstances, you may not own the copyright even though you were the author of the work. If you work for a company and write a manual as part of your job, the company likely owns the copyright to the manual.

Notice to others that the work is protected by copyright assists you if you should ever need to enforce copyright. Notice is given by the use of © (the letter “C” in a circle). Although registration of the copyright is not required, a registered copyright can also help you if you are suing infringement of your work.

To register you must fill in a form where you state that the work is original, you state its title and other details, and you indicate the author(s) names and owner(s) names. This can be done online by going to and following the links to “Copyright”.

Generally, a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years. If a work is published after the author’s death or by an unknown author, the work is protected for 50 years from publication. A photograph is copyright for 50 years from the date the master recording was made. If two or more people are authors of a copyrighted work, the work is copyrighted for 50 years after the death of the last surviving author. In the United Sates, the general term of copyright is the life of the author, plus 75 years. Once a copyright has expired, the work is said to be in the “public domain” and anyone may do what they like with it.

If you feel someone has infringed your work, you may have to sue for infringement. If you are successful in your suit, you may be awarded damages up to your lost profits or the infringer’s illegally gained profits.

An infringement of your copyright may include plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of implying that someone else’s work or ideas are your own. Plagiarism is not copyright infringement. Plagiarism may or may not constitute copyright infringement since it may or may not involve copying of all or a substantial part of a work in which you own the copyright.

There is no infringement of your copyright if non-substantial portions of your work are copied. The test of substantiality is related to quality, not quantity. A critic reviewing your work may reproduce a portion of it without infringing as well, providing they credit the author. But persons not publishing a criticism or review of a first work do not escape infringement merely by “crediting” the author. To protect yourself from infringing on someone else’s copyright, get written permission. You may have to pay a fee to the copyright holder, or permission may be given without fee for limited copying.

The biggest exception to copyright infringement is “fair dealing for research or private study”. To enjoy this exception, allowing you to, for example, download an essay or song, you must be able to prove you could not purchase the work (or obtain a consent to use the work) in a practical, reasonable manner (for example, the essay is out of print and not sold by the copyright holder online). Of course you have to also prove the copying was for the purpose of “research” or “private study”.