Copyright is just one of the areas of intellectual property and intellectual property can quite simply be defined as “the result of one’s creativity” or anything which is in reference to a creation of the mind. These include any kind of invention, design, written work or drawing. It is just like any other property, save for the fact that it is in intangible form. In turn, intellectual property law seeks to protect this human creativity. There are many areas in intellectual property law and these include the laws on patents, designs, trademarks and copyright.

Copyright laws and their enforcement are becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world where technology appears to be developing at the speed of light and the world continues to become smaller, with little or no boundaries. One’s work can very easily be duplicated with a few clicks of a mouse. As such, it is important to ensure that the rights of the author or creator of a particular work are protected and this is what copyright law seeks to achieve.

The fundamental purpose of copyright law is to prevent the copying of a work. The word “work” in the context of copyright law denotes anything that is the result of the author’s time, effort and creativity, although creativity is not a prerequisite. These could include literary works (such as speeches, notes or a book), dramatic, musical and artistic works, films, and sound recordings.

Copyright law is unique within the world of intellectual property in the sense that there is no system of registration. This means that one’s work does not have to be registered with any particular organisation in order to be protected by copyright law. The work attracts protection by virtue of its existence and so the work is automatically protected by copyright law as soon as it is completed.

The most important element in order for a work to attract copyright protection is that it must be original. It need not be creative and can consist of something as mundane as putting together a directory of the most well established financial advisers in Malaysia. However, it is vital that the work must have originated from the author and that it was a result of him expending a minimum amount of skill, labour and judgement in the creation of the work.

The other prerequisite for copyright protection to arise in a work is that the work must be recorded in permanent form, in writing or otherwise. Other than that, there are no other formalities in order to ensure that one’s work is protected by copyright law.

Copyright protection of any particular work lasts for the entirety of the author’s or creator’s lifetime plus another 70 years (depending on your jurisdiction). Here, it is vital to note that the requirement of originality will also include a revision or update of the previous work. This means that constant revision of the original work will give rise to a fresh term of copyright protection. This is precisely how the image of Mickey Mouse (who first appeared in 1928) is still owned by Disney and protected by copyright law after all these years.
At this juncture, it is necessary to be aware that copyright law protects the work, and not the idea upon which the work is based. For an example, the directory as discussed above will be protected by copyright law but not the idea for compiling the list of financial planners in Malaysia. Copyright law protects the form in which an idea is expressed.

The more tedious part of copyright law comes into play when determining who the author or creator of a particular work is. There is a need to distinguish between the owner of the physical medium of the work and the owner of the copyright itself. The general rule in relation to ownership is that the author is always the first owner of the work and it’s copyright.

There are several scenarios that may come into play in today’s commercial world when dealing with the ownership of a copyright work. The simplest example would be when A writes a letter to B. B would own the physical letter in itself but A will own the copyright of that particular letter. Taking this example and placing it in a more commercial perspective: Let’s say that A, a teacher, comes up with a more interactive and innovative study guide for the students at the school where he teaches. It is entirely his work from start to finish. However, the school will be deemed to be the owner of A’s work because in creating the new study guide, he has done so in his capacity as a teacher and during the course of his employment. The work belongs to the school. This is the case in all employer-employee relationships for any work created in relation and during the employee’s course of employment.

Another scenario that is likely to take place surrounds the issue of commissioned works i.e. A asks B to create something and then A agrees to pay for the work unconditionally, regardless of any circumstance. In this case, the initial ownership
belongs to the person creating the work and not the person who commissioned it. However, there may be a written contract between the parties to sort out the technicalities of who is to own the copyright and who is to be granted a license or any other legal rights in order to use the work as he so pleases. In the event of any dispute, the courts are most likely to come to a decision which results in being commercially viable and efficient.

Copyright infringement, in very simple terms, occurs when a person copies the original work. It may also include the issuing of these copies to the public, performing the work in public or any form of communication of the work to the public. Any commercial dealing of these copies of works will also amount to copyright infringement. The most obvious example would be the selling of pirated DVDs.

To amount to infringement of copyright, there must be a taking or copying (either directly or indirectly) of the whole or a substantial part of the original work. The word “substantial” in this context refers to the essence of the work itself and not the quantity of the work that is copied. A suitable example here would be taking the chorus of an old song, rearranging it and putting it into a completely new and different song. Although the chorus does not usually make up the whole of a song, it is a substantial part of a song. Hence, the act of putting it in a new piece of work, albeit in its rearranged form, is tantamount to “substantial taking” thus leading to copyright infringement of the original work.

Being a relatively new area of study, the laws on copyright as well as other forms of intellectual property are constantly developing at a rapid pace in order to protect one’s rights with regards to creativity. Computers have made it easier than ever before for one to copy another’s work and claim it as their own and it may be years before such an infringement is even discovered. However, being aware of these laws and creating such awareness may be the key to preventing such acts from becoming more rampant and blatant than they already are. Any work created by an individual is like their home or car; it is their property and should be protected as such. A work protected by copyright law gives the author, creator and/or owner a bundle of rights. Being aware and vigilant with regards to these rights will ensure that the work is correctly protected and as a result, the risk of infringement considerably reduced.

Note: This article is not intended to be relied upon as a legal opinion to act or refrain from doing an act in particular circumstances, but it is rather intended as a brief and general introduction to the idea of copyright law for educational purposes. Readers are advised to consult their solicitors for any advice or opinion.