Copyright law: what you need to know

As a content creator, you put your heart and soul on to your work.

It is natural that you want to protect it against theft. This is where copyright laws come in.

Berne, UCC, TRIPS, Copyright Act… It’s easy to get lost in the diversity of laws and treaties about copyright.

Here is your guide for getting a clearer idea of what copyright law means for you in 2020.

What is copyright law?

Copyright is a type of legal protection provided to content creators and artists. When a person creates a piece of work, the copyright provides legal ownership of the work to that specific person.

A copyright is a set of rules and a collection of rights that automatically vest to someone who creates an original work, like a song, write up, movie, software, etc.

A copyright provides the original author of the composition the exclusive rights to copy, license, perform, lend, rent, show it to the public, make an adaptation of it, or translate it.

The idea is to provide the author with all the rights to control the use of their work. The main goal of copyright is to encourage the development of innovation, culture, and science.

The law provides a financial benefit to the original author and facilitates access to knowledge and entertainment.

How does copyright work?

The expression of an idea is protected by copyright.

For example, an idea of a new type of ceiling fan expressed through drawings, pictures, and words can be copyrighted.

Basically, copyright protects a tangible medium of expression.

There are two types of rights within the copyright law.

Economic right:

Economic rights recognize the author’s right to authorize, prohibit, or set conditions of use for his work. Economic rights include the rights of:

  • reproduction
  • distribution
  • communication to the public
  • transformation.

Moral rights:

This right refers to the idea that the copyrighted work is the author’s expression of his personality and humanity. The rights include the right to be identified as the author of a work, the right of integrity, and the right of divulgation.

A simple analogy

To better understand these rights, compare them to sheets of paper. The copyright owner has the right to keep the entire bundle of paper, transfer individual sheets of paper to other people, or transfer the bunch as the whole to one or more people.

In short, copyright allows the original author to determine how his copyrighted work is made available to the public.

Basic requirements for a work to be copyrighted

A work applies for copyright when it meets the 3 following requirements:


The work must be created independently to be deemed original. It cannot be copied from something else. There is no requirement that the work is unique, imaginative, or inventive.


A minimal amount of creativity can satisfy the creativity requirement. Very few creations fail to fulfill this requirement.


For the work to meet the fixation requirement, it should be fixed in a tangible medium. That means whatever work you have created should exist physically.

The 7 international copyright treaties you must know about

Members of the WIPO, WTO, UNESCO, and many other international organizations agreed to protect creative work.

1. Statute of Anne (1710): the first-ever copyright law

The world’s first copyright law was put into force for the Statute of Anne ( in England in 1710. Copyrighted work required a deposit at specific copyright libraries and registered at Stationer’s Hall. Unpublished work did not receive automatic copyright.

Many international treaties and national laws followed.

2. Berne Convention (1886): the oldest treaty

The Berne Convention ( is the oldest and the most significant treaty.

It was established in 1886 and signed by nearly 180 countries.

Its minimum protection standards include:

  • the types of work protected,
  • the duration of the protection,
  • the scope of exceptions,
  • the limitations,
  • the national treatment,
  • and automatic protection.

3. Buenos Aires Convention (1910): copyright for America

18 countries from North and South American countries signed the Buenos Aires Convention.

The treaty allows the protection of all creative work as long as they contain a notice informing that the creator claims copyright on it.

4. Universal Copyright Convention (1952): the alternative

Adopted in 1952 in Geneva, the UCC was developed by UNESCO as an alternative to the Berne Convention.

UCC is now irrelevant as most members later agreed on TRIPS and/or WCT.

5. TRIPS (1995): Copyright law for everyone

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) administered the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, also called TRIPS. It means that all WTO members (164 countries) agreed on it.

In a nutshell, TRIPS says that all WTO members must have a national law to enforce intellectual property rights effectively.

6. WIPO Copyright Treaty (1996): the digital age

The WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) better acknowledges the challenges posed by digital technologies.

It made it clear that computer programs and databases are protected by copyright.

It also recognized that transferring the work through the internet or a similar medium is an exclusive right within the copyright scope, initially held by the creator.

7. Marrakesh VIP Treaty (2016): accessible books for the visually impaired

The Marrakesh VIP Treaty (MVT) treaty allows copyright exceptions to easily create accessible books and other copyrighted works for the visually impaired.

98 countries agreed on the MVT, including the United Kingdom and the European Union 27 member states.

Copyright law in the European Union

Each member of the EU has its own copyright law. However, in 2001 the European Union published the Copyright Directive (also called Information Society Directive).

The harmonization had two main objectives:

  • Reflect technological developments
  • Implement the WIPO copyright treaty

The rights of reproduction, distribution, communication, and legal protection were harmonized across European Union Member States by the Directive.

What is the duration of a copyright in the EU

The EU protects your copyrights: 70 years after your death, or 70 years after the death of the last surviving author in the case of joint authorship.

Learn more about copyright protection within the EU on their official site.

Copyright law in the US:

Copyright law in the US is governed by the Copyright Act of 1976. The Act prevents people from unauthorized copying of a work of an author.

You can register your copyrights in the Copyright Office, but newly created work need not be registered.

United States Copyright Office

The USCO is the official US government body that maintains records of copyright registration in the United States. This body is used by copyright title searchers who are trying to clear a chain of title for copyrighted works.

Copyright law matters in 2020

Over the years, there has been a sharp rise in awareness about intellectual property law.

Copyright is the law that safeguards the original work of an author from being copied and used without his authorization. It offers legal protection for creators and artists.

The ultimate goal of copyright law is to create and spread knowledge. It strikes a balance between protecting creative works and allowing people to use them.

FAQ about copyright law

What is the current copyright law?

While each country has its own copyright law, most nations signed an international copyright treaty like Berne, TRIPS or UCC. Modern copyright law protects the authors against others “stealing” and profiting from their work without the original author being rewarded.

Which types of work can be copyrighted?

  • Literary works: like anything that is written, spoken, or sung. This also includes tables or compilations, a computer program, and a database
  • Musical works: consisting of music, without the words or actions performed with the music
  • Dramatic works: like dance or mime
  • Sound recording: any recording of the sound that can be replayed
  • Film: any form of moving image that can be replayed
  • Broadcast: any form of electronic transmission of visual images, sounds, or other information
  • Published editions: usually refers to the style, composition, layout, and general appearance of a page of a published work.

How to get copyright protection?

You get automatic copyright protection when an author comes up with an original work on a tangible medium. You also have the option of registering your original work with the USCO. Once you receive copyright, you get:

  • © followed by a date and name.
  • “Copyright” is followed by a date and name.
  • “Copr.” followed by a date and name. Is there an international copyright law? There is no international law. However, many countries agreed on common treaties and conventions defining a set of copyright standards for creators.

Can I copyright my website?

The original content from an author appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes artwork, writings, pictures, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright.

What is the duration of a copyright?

The duration of copyright varies from country to country according to the type of work. A minimum copyright duration for an individual’s work is the author’s life plus 70 years. The copyright term for “works made for hire” is 95 years from the first date of distribution to the general public or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.

Copyright vs. Trademarks and Patents

Copyright is a collection of rights automatically vested to the author of original work. However, it can only be copyrighted if it is in a tangible medium. And the copyright owner has the authority to choose the way the work is made available to the public.

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of one party’s goods from those of others. It is similar to copyright. It provides protection of the unique name of a brand, making it distinctive from others. Trademark secures the branding under which the product and services are sold.

The primary goal of patent law is to encourage innovation and commercialize technologies. The law incentivizes inventors, and it publicly discloses their inventions in exchange for exclusive rights. Since ideas cannot be copyrighted, patents are designed to protect inventions and innovations. And unlike copyright, a patent must first be applied and be granted from the USPTO. The patenting process is expensive, complicated, difficult, and time-consuming.