Understanding Copyrights: An Overview [Part 3]


This is the third article in my series of practical, simplified overviews about intellectual property rights. The first article, which talked about the differences between copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets is required reading, and will greatly improve your understanding of this article.

What is copyright? The basic idea is that if you created something, then you should be able to prevent someone else from copying it, unless they pay you first. This quickly gets a little more complicated. These complications are best explained in a question answer format:


What exactly is copyrightable?

Copyright law protects creative works fixed in a tangible medium. What that means is that it needs to be created by you (i.e., something exactly like this did not exist anywhere in the world before), and it needs to be something concrete/physical. An audio recording, a painting, a PowerPoint, a MS Word document, a photo are all copyrightable. By contrast, ideas, algorithms, concepts cannot be copyrighted.

What protection does copyright law provide?

Nobody can copy the work without your permission. And you get to decide what they need to do before you give your permission. You might require them to pay you. Or you can simply require them to give you credit with each copy sold. Or you can require that they can only copy it if they are not using it for commercial purposes. Or you can get creative and insist that only Kathak dancers may copy your work, or that anyone who copies your work must plant a tree, or in general, any random condition that you want.


Yes. Check out the provisions of the GNU GPL if you don’t believe me.

So, nobody can copy anything without the creator/author’s permission?

Well, there are exceptions. Copying short excerpts is allowed for the purposes of news reporting, reviews and criticism, and research and scholarship, education. Including a short video clip in movie review is allowed. Excerpts from a book in a book review = OK.

There are a number of other exceptions that have to do with government, and court cases, and police, that will not be of interest to you.

This is called fair use or fair dealing.

Earlier you said that program code can be copyrighted, but the algorithm cannot. Please explain

As I said, an idea cannot be copyrighted. So the actual code written by someone else is copyright protected, but the basic idea behind the program is not. So if I get access to your source code, I can read the code, understand the algorithm, and then get some cheap programmers to re-implement the code using different variable names, a slightly different program structure, and there’s nothing you can do. (That’s why patents exist!)

Similarly, if Ram Gopal Verma watches Sholay and decides to make a really bad movie using the same story but his own characters and dialogues, there is nothing G.P. Sippy can do about it (other than to insist the atrocity should not be called Sholay!)

Shouldn’t there be a law that prevents Ram Gopal Verma from making movies like RGV ki Aag?

This is certainly one of the areas in which copyright law fails miserably.

So if copyright only prevents exact copies, can’t I make minor changes and pass the result off as my own creation?

Actually, no. Copyright also prevents you from creating “derived works”, i.e. works that are based on somebody else’s copyrighted works. You’re allowed to make new works that reuse others’ ideas/concepts, but you’re not allowed to reuse actual (“tangible”) parts of the original work. What is a derived work, and what is not is a bit of a grey area, and ultimately boils down to the subjective judgment of the judge in the court case. Thus, if you rewrite a piece of java code into php, but with essentially the same classes, and functions, and loops, it will be a derived work (not allowed). But if your program structure is different, then it’s not a derived work even if the language and the algorithm are the same.

Copying a musical tune is usually considered derived work. Copying a part of a photograph and using it in another photo or poster or collage is a derived work (even after Photoshop processing).

How do I copyright my work?

There is nothing you have to necessarily do to copyright your work. As soon as you create the work, it is automatically copyrighted by you. It is not necessary to include a copyright notice. It is not necessary to register your copyright with the copyright office. Registering the copyright would make it easier to prove it in court, but that can also be easily achieved by simply publishing your work on the internet (e.g. on a blog) with an appropriate timestamp.

Note, for example, that this website (trak.in) does not have any copyright notice. It doesn’t need to – all articles are owned by the respective authors, and you cannot copy them without permission.

How long does copyright protection last?

(Or, whose permission would I need to create a game based on the Mahabharata?)

Copyrights are not eternal. Otherwise, every school would have to pay royalties to Newton’s descendants before teaching the three laws of motion. In India, copyrights expire 60 years after the death of the author. This number of years differs from country to country.

Who owns the copyright of a program, the programmer who wrote it, or the company who employs him?

Normally, the creator/author of a work owns the copyright for that work. However, if the author created the work as part of his/her employment, or as part of a paid free-lance assignment, this is called work for hire, and in this case,the copyright is owned by the employer.

Thus, most software written by employees is owned by the companies that employ them. If company MNCSoft Inc. outsources the work of developing a program to LittleSoft Pvt. Ltd., the copyright for the program is owned by MNCSoft, unless the contract between explicitly states otherwise.

Also consider this article, written by me, but published on Arun’s website trak.in. Since Arun is not paying me for this article, I own the copyright. And if a book publisher were to approach Arun for publishing “Trak.in: The Offline Edition” – a compilation of trak.in articles, they would not be able to include this article without my explicit permission.

Do I really need to bother with all this copyright stuff? Nobody else does…

Yes, you do need to worry about this stuff. It’s like backups. You don’t know how important they are until your disk crashes (hmmm… why does this sound familiar?). The fact that other people are not taking backups does not help you when your disk crashes.

Legal action for copyright violations does actually happen (yes, even in India), and when this happens to a small company, this can often bring the company down to its knees – sometimes, they even go out of business (yes, even in India)!

So, please, be careful, and don’t violate copyright laws. At least not in your startup.

Arun’s comment: Navin is writing series of articles pertaining to copyrights & patents. This is a 3rd in the series. we will feature remaining 2 in next couple of days.
Copyrights, Patents & Intellectual Property Rights: An Overview
Understanding Patents further

Understanding Copyrights further  (current)
Understanding Open Source Software Licenses
Copyright issues for bloggers, website owners and other content creators

  1. Navin Kabra says

    @Gaurav, Thanks.

    1. You’re confusing copyrights and patents. It’s important to understand the difference. You can patent your idea, not copyright it.
    2. I don’t think that in the domain you are focusing on, the idea is going to have as much importance as marketing and execution. If I were you, I would focus on those aspects.
    3. If you really want to patent your idea, you should approach some patent attorney. It should be easy to find one if you just ask around.

  2. Gaurav says

    Dear Navin, thanks for writing such a clear & funny note on what could be a boring topic! I have a great business idea around improving the Quality of life of fellow Indian’s by focussing on their persnal / social/ emotion problems. I’ve participated in ToI’s Power of Ideas as well. Do I need to Patent my idea at this stage. If yes, who do I approach for copyrighting. It’s fairly well structured but still on paper. My worry is that it should not fall in wrong hands. Or should I just blog about it and assume that no-one will try to copy it. Please suggest. .. Many thanks … Gaurav Tandon

  3. Navin Kabra says

    Sorry, this post yesterday contained a typo which reversed the meaning of an important sentence. In the “Who owns the copyright” section, I had written:

    Normally, the creator/author of a work owns the copyright for that work. However, if the author created the work as part of his/her employment, or as part of a paid free-lance assignment, this is called work for hire, and in this case,the copyright is owned by the employee.

    The last word should have been “employer”. The error has been fixed.


    Just to re-iterate: In case of “work for hire”, in the absence of a specific agreement about intellectual property rights, the work is owned by the employer.

    Thanks to Neeran Karnik for pointing out the typo.

  4. sachin - axtrometric says

    lovely post, very informational and educative. was needing this information for a long long time.

    do u do consulting assigments? i will get in touch with u next month when i am back in india.

    1. Navin Kabra says

      Thanks for the compliments, @sachin.

      The question about consulting is better handled offline [navin at punetech dot com]

  5. Gopinath Mavinkurve says

    Mr. Navin Kabra,

    You have done us a great service by posting this series here. Most of the matters that bothered me as a writer have been addressed here. I would also wish to compliment your style and particularly the sprinkling of humour in your posts that made the subject lively. rI am sure many readers will benefit from the information provided. Thanks!

    1. Navin Kabra says

      Thanks @Gopinath.

      This one was supposed to be a general overview of copyrights. Watch out for the article on copyrights issues for bloggers, website owners and other content creators. That should have more points that writers should be concerned about.

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