In 1709 the first statute was passed to protect the content of books. This was soon followed by protection for engravings and lithographs as the technology of the day moved on.
Sound recording was protected in 1911. It was quaintly called ‘mechanical copying rights’ when the rules were introduced. The history of providing protection to sound recording illustrates the complexities involved in providing copyright protection.
Film was protected in 1956 and software gained statutory protection in 1985. In 1996 data gained a measure of protection as the whole business of intellectual property was tidied up and all electronic formats recognised as potential publications. Now the rules are sufficiently general that the creator is assumed to own the copyright from the outset.
In Europe and the US copyright of a work now extends for 70 years after the year in which the author dies. There are many special provisions for works published before the 70-year rule was agreed, but 70 years is now the de facto standard.
However, the typographical arrangement of a text is only covered for 25 years and it is not clear whether an artist who contributes a cover design enjoys the shorter or the longer protection. There are special rules covering translations, which extend for 50 years after the translator dies.
Public domain and ‘Fair Use’
Public domain and 'fair use' are often confused. A matter is said to be in the public domain if the facts are known to members of the general public. However, the medium in which the information was published continues to enjoy copyright protection.
In Europe there is the concept of ‘fair dealing’, which only permits work to be quoted for the purposes of review, research and criticism. This is a much narrower definition that that of ‘fair use’ which is a US concept deriving from the First Amendment to the American Constitution.
In the US, fair use includes the use of work in education and considers whether the original work is being used for commercial gain, and the impact that its use has on the copyright owner.