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Unpacking copyright licenses

Copyright licenses have received a lot of attention recently. The internet has created a space that allows anyone to share content across national boundaries and without incurring high costs. With copyright infringement becoming a greater concern, this new environment has caused people to rethink how copyright does - and should - work.

Here is a breakdown of the three categories that copyright can fall into, and how each one works.

Copyright basics

A copyright is basically a legal statement of who owns a piece of creative work (a song, novel, movie or drawing, for example) and what everyone else in the world is allowed to do with it. Copyright primarily allows the creator to benefit financially from a creative work.

As soon as you set your creative idea down in its concrete form (type your story, record your track), it automatically becomes copyrighted in your name. The copyright is a right you can keep or sell, and it prevents anyone else from doing certain things with your work.

For example, a standard copyright allows anyone to read your novel, but prohibits them copying the text and sharing it for free online. Every copyright expires eventually - in South Africa, this happens 50 years after the death of the creator.

All rights reserved

Copyright comes in three "strengths"; the most limited form is the standard, automatic copyright type. You have probably seen the words "all rights reserved" around you every day. This type of copyright means that anyone can experience the work (read the book, listen to the song), but may not do anything else to it , especially if the action has financial implications (such as sell it for a profit, hand it out for free or make a movie out of it).

To be able to do these things, the person must contact the author of the work and get explicit permission, which must often be paid for. The law does allow for certain types of "fair uses" - a researcher may quote a few lines without paying a fee, for example - but these are quite limited.

Some rights reserved

The "some rights reserved" approach is a step down from the harshness of the full copyright. Its purpose is to clarify certain allowed actions up-front, to cut out the process of having to ask for permission to make certain uses of a work.

For example, a "some rights reserved" license can state that anyone can copy and share a creative work, but may not use it for commercial purposes - you'll need to ask permission to make a commercial film out of it, but can share it for free with friends whenever you want. Special licenses like Creative Commons or the GNU General Public License simplify the process by allowing you to attach pre-made conditions to your work.

No rights reserved

"No rights reserved" is the other extreme of the process - this form of license means that the author is not exercising any control over a work, and anyone can do anything to it. This license can be applied by choice, but any work whose copyright has expired (50 years after the death of the creator) automatically enters the public domain - which means that no rights are reserved. A public domain or no-rights-reserved work can be used for any purpose, including commercial: for example, anybody can publish and sell Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or create a film adaptation. The only perpetual right that remains is the right to be identified as the author of the work - which means you can't publish Pride and Prejudice under anyone else's name.

The University of Cape Town Internet and the Law course starts on 13 September 2010. For more information contact Kate on 021 685 4775 or az.oc.retramsteg@etak or go to

About Anna Malczyk

Anna Malczyk is the communication executive for GetSmarter, a specialist online training company. She is involved in the design and implementation of the University of Cape Town Internet Super-User course.

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