Copyright: the basics

What is Copyright?

A copyright is the exclusive right to copy a work, or to permit any other person to do so.   The owner of a work’s copyright has the sole right to control any publication, production, reproduction and performance of that work, or its translation.
Copyright also includes the right of its owner to prevent people from reproducing significant portions of a work or from creating very similar expressions. What will be considered a very similar expression or a “significant portion” of a work will vary depending on the case.

A copyright holder also has the right to demand royalties, or payment from others for the use of their work.  Such payment may be arranged through performing rights societies, collectives, publishing houses, or by the owners themselves through contracts.

It is also possible for the owner of a copyright to assign part or all of the rights  associated with  their copyright to another person or entity via contract.

Beyond a copyright in their works, authors in Canada also have moral rights in their creations.  This is based on the idea that a person’s creative work is an extension of themselves, and should not be altered without their consent. Moral rights are legally enforceable and remain with the author even after an assignment of copyright is made or a license for its use granted to another.

What can be copyrighted?

According to s. 5(1) of the Canadian Copyright Act, “every original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work” is copyrightable.  In order to be considered original, an  author must be able to demonstrate an exercise of skill and judgment in creating the work.
The kinds of works that can be copyrighted are numerous and varied.  They include: books, maps, lyrics, musical scores, sculptures, paintings, photographs, films, tapes, computer programs and databases.
Copyright does not, however, protect ideas alone.  An idea must be “fixed” in a tangible medium, such as written down on a piece of paper, recorded on tape, or saved as a computer file, in order to be copyrightable. For example, if you have an excellent idea for a television series, until the pilot episode is written there is no copyright afforded.
Slogans, names and titles are also not copyrightable, although they may be protected by another area of intellectual property law such as trademark law.

Who owns a Copyright?

Generally, the person who creates a work owns the copyright attached to it. However if you create a work during the course of your employment, the employer may own the copyright unless there is an express agreement to the contrary. Similarly if a person commissions a photograph, portrait, engraving or print, the  work may be deemed a work for hire”, and the person who commissioned it,  the work’s copyright owner.
While you do not have to register your copyright in a work with the federal government’s Copyright Office, doing so may prove useful in the future if you ever need to prove that the work is indeed your copyright-protected property.  You can register your copyright in a work at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.


Generally in Canada, the term of copyright is the length of the life of the author plus 50 years following their death.
Canadian copyright is recognized in other countries under various treaties.  However, unlike the automatic copyright protection an author is entitled to in Canada, there is no automatic international copyright.  Whether a work’s copyright will be respected in a foreign country will depend on the national laws of that country.

There is also an exception within Canada to the right of a copyright holder to prevent others from reproducing their work without permission.   Canada’s “Fair dealing ”policy allows users to make a single copy of a copyrighted work without the permission of the author, if the purpose  is for “research and private study.”