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Copyright Basics

Is copyright a bit fuzzy to you? Get some clarity by understanding it's history and purpose.

Fuzzy Copyright

Fuzzy Copyright by Nancy Sims licensed under CC BY-NC

The Big Question

Generally speaking, people are willing to invest time and effort in projects that will benefit them in some way. Gardeners spend the spring and summer crawling in dirt and pulling weeds because they look forward to the reward of fresh vegetables to eat or sell in the fall. Authors spend months or years researching, writing, and editing because they look forward to the reward of enlightening or entertaining the public and earning income from the sales of their books.

The law makes it a crime for someone to sneak into the garden overnight and steal away the harvest the gardener has toiled for all summer long. Likewise, copyright laws make it a crime for someone to copy and sell an author’s book without their permission, denying them the income they labored to receive. Considered in this context, how do copyright laws promote the creation of things like books, movies, and songs?

herbs & spices that burn my tongue...

herbs & spices that burn my tongue... by Erik Pöhler licensed under CC BY

Learning Outcomes

  • Trace basic history of copyright
  • Explain copyright purpose
  • Understand copyright is automatic
  • Explain general copyright terms

Personal Reflection / Why It Matters to You

Think back to a time that you invested significant effort in a project outside of work. What was your motivation for doing so?

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

History of Copyright

Copyright is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to believe that it’s a law of nature, like gravity. However, copyright is a relatively recent social invention, as you can learn by reading the introduction to this History of Copyright.

Purpose of Copyright

The purpose of copyright depends on who you ask - or, more specifically, the jurisdiction in which they live. In some jurisdictions the purpose of copyright is to provide financial incentives to would-be creators to create. In other jurisdictions, the purpose of copyright is to recognize and protect the natural connection between a creator and her works.

The Types of Works Protected by Copyright

Copyright protects a broad range of creative works. For a thorough listing of the kinds of things protected by copyright, see [What is Protected?]( In the over 160 nations that have adopted the Berne Convention, all the works protectable by copyright are automatically copyrighted from the moment they are created, eliminating the need to register or place a notice on a work in order to receive copyright protection.

What Copyright Restricts

Copyright reserves several exclusive rights to the copyright holder, including the rights to:

  • make copies of the work
  • distribute copies of the work
  • create derivative works
  • publicly display or perform the work

The copyright holder can license or permanently assign these rights to others.

Application of Learning

Learner Toolkit

Select two or three resources directly relevant to your personal or work-related CC needs from the Acquiring Essential Knowledge content and add them to your personal Creative Commons toolkit. Adding them to your toolkit makes them easy to find and use when the need arises, and makes it easy for you to pass on resources you consider important to others. Annotate the resources with notes explaining why they are relevant and important for you and your work.

Community - Collaboration, Appreciation, Recognition, Gratitude

Share your feelings about the purpose of copyright in the CC Certificate social forum. Is the purpose of copyright to promote creativity, or is copyright a recognition of a deeper “natural” connection between the creator and the created? Many people have a difficult time understanding or relating to the view they did not grow up with. Can you help your peers develop a deeper appreciation of your culture’s view of copyright?

Applied Practice

Complete the following activity in the Quest Bank:

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