Intellectual property right essentials

This page attempts to outline the essentials of "copyright" and the way the concept works irrespective of local national legislation. It also attempts to address the question as it pertains to electronic publishing.

For details, see the FAQ (Frequently asked questions) and 10 myths about copyright on this server.


The basic tenet of "copyright" is that a person has the sole right of physical and intellectual ownership to any work that is in itself a "unique work of art" created by that person alone. By extension, such a work created by a group of people belongs to them in proportions to which they have agreed.

The degree to which a work of intellectual creativity can be judged to be "unique" is in essence the subject of the author's claim and in consequence the result of formal arbitration should that claim be challenged.

In creating a unique work that might or might not be used by others for entertainment, sustenance or gain, the author retains both rights and responsibilities.

The concept of copyright can be broken down into three basic areas:

  • attribution and integrity

    The author of a work has the right to have his name attributed to the work when it is published, quoted or otherwise displayed.

    The integrity of the work shall be maintained unchanged unless the author gives explicit permission. Common instances of such change would be the adaptation of a work for performance, such in the performing arts.

    It is interesting to note that such adaptation might also extend to publishing on the World-Wide Web and especially in the adaptation of exectuable software programs.

    Employees in private or public sector retain the right of attribution and integrity unless otherwise agreed with their employer.

  • ownership, reproduction and distribution

    For technical and economic reasons it has been customary for authors to share the rights of commercial exploitation of their works with publishers either by employment or contract. Examples of the former are researchers in educational institutions and staff journalists. Typical of the latter are independent authors and free-lance journalists.

    Such transfer or sharing of property rights might be agreed on the basis of a complete sale for a one-time lump sum, for a limited time royalty fee or for a limited number reproduction. Examples of works that might typically be subjected to such agreements are books, performances of plays, films, etc..

    In media such as journalism and broadcasting a mixture of agreements might be used. In addition to an agreed basic wage of employment, the author might receive additional piecemeal payment for each article or program produced. Such agreements might also cover rights of remuneration for reprintings and retransmission.

  • display and performance

    In extension of original authorship come the rights associated with unique creativity in performance, interpretation and display. Examples are musical performances where the interpretation of a certain piece of music will be considered unique. The same pertains for example to films based on novels and CD ROMs or Websites based on previously authored works. Rights of attribution and remuneration are basically as covered in the two sections above.

Having created a unique work, two elementary aspects of responsibility follow especially in situations where conflicting claims need to be resolved.

  • income and compensation

    Infringements of intellectual property right (i.e. attribution and integrity) are traditionally not attributed great consequence. They depend largely on the popularity and esteem of the author irrespective of how stringent applicable law might be. It is for instance inconceivable that a song performed or written by well-known pop-stars not be attributed to the author or performer. However, a small town architect will spend a life time trying to explain his intellectual property rights to the local news paper editor who inevitably attributes the work to builders, property developers or owners of the building in question.

    Conflicts of copyright inevitably boil down to fairly simple equations which party has infringed the others fair and legal right to income from the work in question.

    There are numerous examples of vast sums being awarded in compensation for lost income because a work as been illegally copied and distributed and equally numerous awards of symbolic (and ridiculously small) sums being awarded for copying where no documented loss of income on part of the original author can be proved.

  • legal liability

    While authors of unique works are eager to have their names attributed to whatever product that may result, they often do not pay equal attention to the legal liabilities that may ensue. Claims for defamation of character, personal injury, lost income and infringement of copyright are but a few of the conflicts that may result from what might subjectively be considered a work of quite innocuous composition.

    It is quite normal for many professions such as law, medicine, engineering and the journalistic media to retain insurance policies in case of claims against professional negligence.

    An author's claim to rights of attribution and remuneration for a work will always be balanced by the perceived level of legal liability that might perceivably be a consequence of the work in question. If the author is an employee and legal liability not otherwise agreed, the employer is usually liable thereby also having claims to both attribution and income. In the case that the author is the sole owner with respect both to attribution and distribution, the legal liability also rests with him alone.

Collective compensation

An interesting form of compensation for indirect distribution arises in the case of recorded music that may have relevance for publication on the Internet in the future. Several countries have organizations for compensating musicians for works that are performed publicly. Compensation is claimed as tariffs through agreements with groups representing the broadcasting media, cinemas, restaurants, etc. and redistributed to the property right holders through membership in the organization and in affiliation with other similar national organizations. The Internet has recently come under the scrutiny of these organizations who's workings may well be applied to other forms of information content on the net.


An author's death does not automatically pass the intellectual ownership rights into the public domain. Laws vary from country to country, but current legislation in the European Community provides for the retention of an author's rights to his estate for 70 years after death. Beyond that rights may vary according to the number of copies of a work that are available, their ownership and distribution, etc.

National security and non-disclosure agreements

Note that laws of national security such as those that apply to civil servants may supersede intellectual property rights by common consent. Contracts of non-disclosure might also conflict with intellectual property rights which must be cleared before such contracts are signed should the signatories so wish.

Copyright on the Internet

Basically, "normal" laws and regulations of intellectual property rights can be applied to the Internet. However, because of the ease with which digital material can be distributed, details particularly concerning copying and distribution can be interpreted in ways that conflict with laws as they apply to print and broadcast media which are those that most closely resemble the net.

Until such time as separate laws governing digital publication are formulated, there is one very elementary rule that should be respected.

    No publication may be copied to another location for publication without the express permission of the person or persons who retain the copyright to the material.

In other words, links may be made to other material, but none of the individual items published elsewhere may be "sourced" to locations other than their origin. Links that bring other material to a WWW browser must show that material in its entire and original display environment.

A particularly interesting aspect of publishing on the Internet is that as soon as a publication is posted the author's property rights to that material are affirmed in the same manner as they would have been were it printed in a paper journal.

International copyright

Authors publishing in countries that have no current laws of intellectual property right should be aware that the laws of the country in which the publication is read may be deemed to apply.

Privacy Laws

Notwithstanding laws of intellectual property right and freedom of expression, these may be superseded by privacy laws and censorship laws in certain countries. This might specially pertain to still photographs or live video published electronically.

These notes are based on my experience first as an architect whose intelectual copyright was infringed in various ways, major and minor, through 20 years of practice and subsequently as a software developer and publisher on the Internet.

Børre Ludvigsen, visiting professor at AUB, 1997

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Created by the Documentation Center at AUB in collaboration with Al Mashriq of Høgskolen i Østfold, Norway.

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