Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 June 2018
To quote theOxford English Dictionary, copyright is ‘the exclusive right given by law for a certain term of years to an author … to print, publish or sell copies of his work’. Clearly, it is not merely the right to copy. Rather, the word ‘copyright’ derives from another meaning of copy, as in an advertiser's ‘copy’, his or her material for the printer. In this context, a copy is, as Dr Johnson put it in his Dictionary(1810), ‘the autograph; the original; the archtype; that from which any thing is copied’. Copyright, then, is the right in the ‘copy’, the author's original work.
The right to enjoy copyright protection is regarded internationally as arising from natural justice, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which says that ‘everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author’. Copyright also exists in order to benefit society generally, by providing an incentive for creativity as an encouragement for learning and the arts. It originated, though, with the much more immediately practical purpose of giving printing monopolies as a form of government censorship. Then, in statutory form it replaced the individual monopolies with a regime designed to outlaw the piracy of publications. In the UK, therefore, it has always been regarded as primarily an economic property right: the right of the owner to benefit from the fruits of his or her skill, judgement and labour. This is the ‘common law’ approach exported from the UK to Ireland, the Commonwealth and the USA, as distinct from the ‘civil law’, ‘author's right’ approach of most other European countries, which emphasizes the protection of the author's personality as expressed in his or her work.
In all jurisdictions, an attempt is made to limit the rights of copyright owners in the public interest. The countries that are parties to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) (see 1.2.6) Copyright Treaty recognize ‘the need to maintain a balance between the rights of the author and the larger public interest, particularly education, research and access to information’. Very little is entirely new so all authors use the works of their predecessors in one way or another: copyright must reward but it must not stifle creativity and innovation.