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Most national copyright laws recognize two different types of rights within copyright:

  • Economic rights
  • Moral rights

Countries in the Anglo-American tradition, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, tend to minimize the existence of moral rights in favor of an emphasis on economic rights in copyright.

Economic or exploitation rights recognize the right of the holder to use, to authorize use of, or to prohibit the use of, a work, and to set the conditions for its use. Different specific uses (or “acts of exploitation”) of a work can be treated separately, meaning that the rightsholder can deal with each right (including using, transferring, licensing or selling the right) on an individual type-of-use basis. Economic rights typically include:

  • The right of reproduction (for instance, making copies by digital or analogue means),
  • The right of distribution by way of tangible copies (for example, selling, renting or lending of copies),
  • The right of communication to the public (including public performance, public display and dissemination over digital networks like the Internet), and
  • The right of transformation (including the adaptation or translation of a text work).

Moral rights refer to the idea that a copyrighted work is an expression of the personality and humanity of its author or creator. They include:

  • The right to be identified as the author of a work,
  • The right of integrity (that is, the right to forbid alteration, mutilation or distortion of the work), and • The right of first divulgation (that is, making public) of the work
  • Moral rights cannot always be transferred by the creator to a third party, and some of them do not expire in certain countries.

Public domain The public domain refers to works (i) no longer protected by copyright (that is, where the copyright has expired) (ii) belonging to categories of works not protected by copyright law. In addition, in some countries (including the United States and, for certain purposes, the United Kingdom) government works are defined by law as being in the public domain (not protected by copyright) from the moment of their creation. Thus, differences in how national copyright laws define the duration of copyright and list the categories of works protected, result in different definitions of the public domain on a country-by-country basis. In Europe, the Europeana Connect project has developed a helpful Public Domain Calculation tool.

Exceptions and limitations

Exceptions and limitations to copyright are special cases defined by law where the general principle that the prior authorization of the rightsholder is necessary to make use of a work does not apply. That is, in the public interest of maintaining a balance between the interests of rightsholders and those of content users, copyright-protected works may in some cases be used without the authorization of the rightsholder. Generally, exceptions and limitations to copyright are subject to a three-step test initially set out in the Berne Convention and repeated in a number of other international agreements. Briefly stated, the Berne Convention provides that an exception or limitation to copyright is permissible only if (1) it covers only special case (2) it does not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work (3) it does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author. Within that standard, exceptions and limitations vary substantially from country to country in number and scope, who is entitled to benefit from them, and whether or not they include an obligation to compensate the rightsholders whose rights are so limited.

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