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An introduction to copyright law

As a software industry professional, you will have spent a long time designing, maintaining and developing your software, website and documentation. You will therefore want to ensure that someone else doesn't copy your work without your permission.

In this article we provide you with an overview of how copyright laws help to protect your work.

Copyrighting your work

Copyright laws have been enacted in most countries to protect work you produce.

Depending on the country in which you live, copyright is obtained either automatically or by application.

Some countries, such as Australia, have laws that provide for automatic copyright protection as soon as an idea is created in "tangible" form (which includes being saved to disk). There is no registry and application system in Australia. This means that people and companies in Australia usually have their work automatically protected as soon as it is created and saved to disk.

Other countries have a government department called a copyright registry through which copyright can be applied for. Registration may not necessarily be required in these countries before certain protection is offered, but it is often the case that the options for taking legal action and obtaining damages are limited unless an application has been made.

Laws and application procedures vary between countries, so if you are considering copyrighting your work, you should check with a lawyer or intellectual property attorney to find out exactly what is required in your jurisdiction.

Subject to applicable laws, once copyright has been obtained, a copyright statement can be included with your work. It is recommended that the statement contains the word "copyright", the copyright symbol ( © ), the year the copyright came into effect and the name of who owns the copyright. An example of a copyright statement is:

Copyright © 2007 Multimedia Australia Pty. Ltd.

Copyright remains in effect for a certain number of years before it lapses (this period varies from one country to another, but the period is generally between 50 to 70 years after the author's death).

How does copyright help you?

The copyright laws of most countries include fair use provisions that in some circumstances permit limited use of copyrighted material provided that the source has been cited.

However, if copyright infringement does occur, various legal avenues may be available. Due to the world-wide accessibility of the Internet, complex international law issues may arise, and you should always seek expert legal advice if you believe your copyright has been infringed and you want to take further action.

Note that copyright protects your own work. It does not prevent some else independently creating a similar work. This means for example, that if you develop a word processing software program, under copyright law, a competitor will not prima facie infringe your copyright if they develop their own word processing product.

(As a side note, protection differs if you hold a patent, but this is outside the scope of this article. In addition, unlike copyright, to be granted a patent, you will need to apply for registration. If you are considering applying for a patent, you should seek legal advice.)

What to copyright

When placing a copyright notice on your software or website, you may need to identify exactly what you are trying to copyright. For example on a website, is it the text, images, design or the entire site? If you have obtained permission from someone else to publish their work, you may need to include their copyright statement instead of, or in addition to, your own.

If someone else designed your software or website, you may not necessarily own the copyright to the work. The design, images, source code and more may belong to the person or company that created the work. If you are unsure, refer to your contract with the designer and check with a lawyer or intellectual property attorney.

Other copyright considerations

In addition to providing protection for your own work, copyright is also an issue you need to take into account if you plan to use someone else's work (including using photographs, images, source code libraries) while designing your software and website.

If you want to use work owned by others, you should always ensure you have permission to do so. When you check whether the copyright owner authorises you to use their work, it is advisable to check whether their permission extends to publishing the work online or as part of your software - sometimes permission is granted only for publishing material offline.

You now have a general understanding of copyright laws and how to protect your software and website from unauthorised copying. Also be aware that in addition to copyright, there are other forms of intellectual property protection such as trademarks and patents. A lawyer or intellectual property attorney will be able to advise you whether you have any work that is able to be protected through these additional means. The information we have provided should be used as a guide only. Copyright is a complex issue, particularly where the Internet is involved, and laws often change. You therefore always seek expert advice for your specific requirements.

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