Basics of Copyright Law

by Syamsuriatina Ishak



Copyright is one of the types of Intellectual Property (IP) rights which comes into being once a creation of the mind (“creative work”) comes into existence.  Other types of IP that you commonly hear of are Trade Marks (rights over logos or brands that distinguish a product or service), Patents (rights over inventions) and Industrial Design. An IP right is a piece of movable property (as opposed to Immovable properties such as houses) that can be sold, licensed out, inherited etc. The topic of commercial dealings in copyright will be discussed in later postings.

Apart from writers who generally enjoy copyright over their original intellectual or literary works, copyright is also enjoyed by creators of other artistic works, eg. visual artists (over their paintings, sculptures, drawings), and also photographers, song writers and movie makers over their photographs, songs, movies respectively. You get the idea. For the purposes of discussion below and in subsequent postings, I will use the general term “Authors” to refer to these artists, although similar principles apply to all copyright creators.

Copyright is a means for Authors to make money from the work they have created, for them to control or protect their work. It’s a form of incentive for Authors to continue creating these artistic works for everyone’s enjoyment. But, the law also recognizes the right of the user to enjoy intellectual works freely, also known as “fair use” or “fair dealing”, because artistic works can blossoms into thought and other creative pursuits and encourages development of other forms of ideas which can benefit the society and the world in general. Which is why, under the law, exclusive copyright granted to an Author (allowing them to control and profit from them) is subject to certain limitations and exceptions.


1) There must be expression or representation of the creative work (i.e. the creative work must take form). If you’re talking about a story, the story needs to be written down (or typed out). It is not good enough that the story is an “idea” or piece of “information” in the writer’s head; this does not attract copyright protection.

2) It is territorial in nature; in other words, is limited to a certain geographical areas. Although copyright laws of many countries have been standardized by subscribing to international treaties (eg. by being a party to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and a signatory of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works), remember, different countries (or territories) may have different or unique copyright provisions that are not applicable anywhere else. So, it’s not unheard of that you may have certain types of copyright protection in say, Europe, for your book, and different rights and provisions in, say, China.

3)  Although some territories require certain formal procedures to be carried out before copyright protection is granted, most provide that copyright is automatic, i.e. subsists as soon as the works have been created (or reduced to some material form). 

4) The Author’s right of enjoyment of the benefit/protection over his/her Copyright is usually limited to a fixed timeframe; typically, for an individual Author, this enjoyment is limited a usual timeframe of the Author’s lifetime plus fifty years (and up to 100 years), but this may vary depending on territory and type of work.

5) To qualify for copyright protection, the works generally have to be ‘original’, in that the Author has poured in sufficient skill, effort and judgment into the creation of the work.


UPCOMING POSTS – Different Types of Author’s Rights, Obtaining and Enforcing a Copyright