Copyright Law


The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on legal issues within the Province of Alberta. The purpose of this topic is to inform you of your legal rights and responsibilities. This is not legal advice. If you require legal advice, you should contact a lawyer.

This topic will discuss copyright law.

What is Copyright?

Copyright gives you exclusive rights to certain types of original, unique forms of expression that you create. This work may be in the following forms of work: music, sculptures, paintings, photographs, films, books, articles, plays, television shows, movies, sound recordings, architectural works, drawings, software codes, artistic performances, and much more. If someone else copies and uses your copyright works in any form without your permission, you have a legal right to stop them from doing so.

Copyright does not protect general ideas that are contained in artistic expression. The general plot of a play or story, for example, is an idea that is not protected in the same way as the script of a play. However, while ideas are not protected by copyright, your way of expressing them is. For an example, where the plot of the story isn’t protected, the way it is expressed in a performance or play will be protected.

Copyright is acquired automatically when the original work is done being created. It is created once it is completed and resides in the fixed form used for the type of work. If, for example, you composed and sang a song, but never recorded it or wrote down the music, your song is not automatically protected by copyright.

Ownership of copyright works

Ownership of copyright is complex. In some circumstances, you may not own the copyright even though you were the author of the work. For example, if you are the author of a song but record the band’s performance without permission, you would need permission from the band in order to distribute your recording since it also contains the band’s music and performance of that music.

Your employer’s rights can also limit your rights as a creator of your work. If you were hired for the purpose of creating copyright-protected material, then your employer would own the copyright for anything you produce during company time or using company resources. For example, if you work for a company and are asked to write a manual for a product, the company likely owns the copyright to the manual. In this scenario, you are assigning your rights in the work to your employer.

Recent changes to the Canadian Copyright Act have modified the relationship between photographers and their clients or employers. Since 2012, photographers are the first owners of copyright in the images they produce. If you are purchasing photographs, or photography services, it is important to transfer the copyright from the photographer if you intend to reproduce the images provided. Similarly, if you are the photographer’s employer, you must also obtain the photographer’s permission before distributing their work.

Registering a copyright

When you are finished creating your work, copyright law automatically protects it. However, there are benefits to registering your copyright in that work. Upon registration, you will receive a ‘certificate of registration’ that you can use as proof in any legal proceeding against someone that copied your work, to show your created work is protected by copyright and is yours. You can also give notice to others that a work is protected by copyright, should ever need to enforce your rights. Notice is given by the use of © (the letter “C” in a circle).

To register a copyright online, you must fill in a form where you state that the work is original, state its title and other details and indicate the author(s) names and owner(s) names. This can be done online  by going to http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/wr03915.html?Open&wt_src=cipo-cpyrght-main&wt_cxt=toptask and following the instructions and links to filing a ‘copyright e-filing application’. If you have any further questions about registration, you may call the Canadian Intellectual Property’s Office Client Service Centre at 1-866-997-1936.

Protection timeline for your 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 the author’s death. There are certain exceptions to this lifetime protection. For an instance, 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. There are also different terms of protection for government publications, unknown authors and unpublished works. Once a copyright has expired, the work is said to be in the “public domain” and can be reproduced by the public.

Infringement of your copyright work

If you feel someone has copied or reproduced your work without your permission, you may sue him or her for copyright infringement. If you are successful in your suit, you may be awarded money damages for the amount of your lost profits or the infringer’s illegally obtained profits. The court may also award an injunction against the infringer, which would prevent them from using or reproducing your work.

A type of infringement of your copyright may include plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of implying that someone else’s work or ideas are your own. Whether this will be found to be a copyright infringement will depend on how much of the work is under copyright.

In order for someone to infringe your copyright work, an entirety or a substantial portion of your work must have been copied. This test is related to quality, not quantity. A court will look at the value and importance of the work that was copied rather than how much of it was copied. The judge will determine this based on the facts of your case and the circumstances.

To protect yourself from infringing on someone else’s copyright, get written permission from the copyright holder or their lawyer. Their consent may be given in the form of a license, which will state the permission they granted to you.

The most common defense against copyright infringement is “fair dealing for research or private study”. This allows you to, for an example, use an essay or song for the purpose of conducting research or your studies. However, your use of the work must be used in a fair and reasonable manner for the purposes of your study or research and you must also have referenced the source of the work and the author’s name.

Dial-A-Law is a Calgary Legal Guidance public service project funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.