Backgrounder
You can’t print that … or can you? Copyright law gives writers and artists control over how their works and used, but there are exceptions for publishing excerpts and using material in the classroom. Find out more.

What is copyright?

Copyright gives writers and other artists ownership of their creations. The federal Copyright Act, R.S. 1985, c. C-42 forbids the unauthorized use, duplication or public display of newspaper and magazine articles, books, photographs, films and other artistic works. Copyright protection remains in effect for 50 years after the death of the person who created the work. Copyright protects form, not content – the way words and ideas are expressed, not the words and ideas themselves. Journalists cannot claim copyright to the facts that go into their stories; copyright applies only to the wording used to express and convey this information.

First rights and subsequent rights

When a freelance journalist sells an article to a newspaper, magazine or broadcaster, the journalist retains copyright. Publishers typically buy “first rights” and can publish or broadcast the article only once, unless there is an agreement authorizing additional uses. The publication must pay to reuse the article and cannot resell it without the journalist’s permission. This is not the case for journalists on the staff of a media outlet, who research and write their stories on company time. The employer owns the copyright and can reprint or rebroadcast their work without providing further compensation.

Electronic rights

The reuse and resale of stories compiled in electronic databases is the subject of a copyright battle between freelance writers and Canadian media corporations. A class action suit on the issue is awaiting trial, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in October 2006 that newspapers and other publishers cannot reproduce freelance work in databases without the agreement of writers, photographers and illustrators. The court made an exception for CD-ROM versions of newspapers and magazines, concluding they are simply reproductions of the original publication. Staff writers have no claim to the electronic rights to their stories, as these are the property of their employers (Robertson v. Thomson Corp., 2006 SCC 43).

Fair dealing

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Fair dealing allows copyrighted work to be reproduced for educational purposes, research and private study. Short excerpts may also be republished without permission for the purpose of a book review or an essay of criticism. Credit must be given to the author or creator.

Moral rights

Writers and artists retain some control over how their work is used. These “moral rights” enable journalists, for instance, to insist on having their byline placed on articles as well as the right to remain anonymous or to use a pseudonym. Moral rights are infringed if the work is “distorted, mutilated or otherwise modified,” or used to promote a product, a service or a cause without the authorization of its creator.

Penalties for copyright infringement

Anyone who violates copyright can be sued for damages, barred from publishing a pirated work, or forced to hand over profits earned from its sale. Police may be asked to investigate the infringement as a criminal matter, leading to a possible fine or jail term. Passing off someone else’s work as your own, of course, is more than a violation of copyright – it is a form of intellectual theft known as plagiarism.

– Compiled by Dean Jobb. Updated December 2006.