By Christina Daouti, on 8 December 2023
Copyright applies to various creative works: books, articles, teaching resources, blogs, websites, datasets, software, photos, images, music, film, recordings, plays…To use (e.g., copy, include in your own work, adapt, share, post on the web) a substantial part of a copyright work, you normally need permission from the rights holder.
As Christmas is traditionally a season of generosity, some might hope that copyright laws and regulations would be suspended during the festive period (you never know; stranger things have happened). Alas, this is not the case: the Christmas spirit does not extend to copyright. This means that your beloved Christmas songs, stories, images and films are still protected, unless they are old enough to have entered the public domain.
To stay within the law – and on Father Christmas’s ‘nice’ list – this year, be aware of the following:
- Books, articles, poems, letters to Father Christmas, messages on Christmas cards: all these may qualify as ‘literary works’ and are, by default, protected by copyright, whether they are in hard or digital form, published or unpublished. This means that if a friend has drafted a beautiful season’s greeting message, copying it without permission would be copyright infringement, even if you acknowledged them as the author.
- You can eat, drink and be merry without fear of infringing copyright. As indicated in the well-known cheese case, the taste of a food may not be protected: two brands of mince pie or two roast turkeys may taste the same without a chef having infringed the other’s copyright. However, copyright protection could, in some cases, apply to the wording of the recipes themselves.
- Christmas music may be protected unless copyright has expired. For instance, you would need permission or a licence to play a song in public or share a recording with others. Music copyright is complex, as different rights may apply the composition score, the lyrics and the recording of the performance. For example, you should be able to record your own version of Silent Night, as copyright has expired for this song; but you cannot use a recording that is still in copyright. Likewise, while you can enjoy a cosy night in watching your favourite Christmas film with friends, a public showing of the film would normally require a licence.
- Photos, drawings and other images are, by default, protected as artistic works. Even if they are available to download on the internet, they may not be free to reuse unless accompanied by a licence permitting reuse. Designs on Christmas jumpers, cards, crackers and gift wrap may be subject to both design rights and copyright.
5. The law also protects the moral rights of creators, including the right to be recognised as the author of a work and the right to object to derogatory treatment of a work. For example, in 1982 the artist Michael Snow successfully sued the Toronto Eaton Centre for derogatory treatment of his sculpture Flightstop, which included sixty Canada geese in flight. In the spirit of Christmas, the centre had decorated the necks of the geese with red ribbons. The judge found that doing so violated the moral rights of the artist (not the geese!) as it compromised the integrity of the work.
Understanding how copyright applies to others’ works should not stop you from being creative, whether this is about dressing up your goose, writing a Christmas song or doing research. For example, you may still be able to use copyright materials without permission if you rely on a copyright exception such as quotation, criticism and review or parody and pastiche. Several copyright exceptions can be used if the use is ‘fair dealing’. This is a matter of judgement that has perhaps more nuance than a ‘naughty-or-nice’ list.
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