Image is illustrative. Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

Copyright – what is it and what does it protect?

Simply put, copyright is a form of legal protection for any piece of original published and unpublished work. This includes literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work, software, web content, databases, film and television recordings, sound and music recordings and the layout of published editions. Ideas, thoughts or facts, however, are not protected by copyright. So how, let’s say, do we know whether something we want to repost on Instagram or Facebook, for example, is protected by copyright? Long story short, because of the Berne Convention signed by the EU countries, we should assume it is protected and therefore should include a report tag stating the source from where we’re reposting it.


How does copyright work?

Our copyright starts as soon we create original content, be it, for example, a picture, an audio or video recording or a blog. As authors, we control how our work is used and own the exclusive right to copy, distribute, perform, broadcast or adapt it. Since our work has been created with some sort of medium (a smartphone, for example) and has a date & time of creation, we do not need to register our right of ownership. Trademarks, though, are very useful when it comes to creating an official name for an organisation, publication, activity or event. If you are, for example, an NGO who needs to register your logo or protect your name, you should consider getting a trademark. Read more about trademarks in the last section of this article.

The copyright owner does not necessarily need to be just one person, it could be multiple people or a company. Anyone else who wants to reproduce copyrighted work must seek permission from the copyright holder or check whether the owner has permitted particular use through a licence. Read on to find out more about different kinds of copyright and how we can use them.


How are copyrights regulated in the EU?

According to the official website of the EU, EU copyrights are protected by a set of eleven directives and two regulations which harmonise the essential rights of authors and performers, producers and broadcasters. In EU countries, copyright protects your intellectual property until 70 years after your death or 70 years after the death of the last surviving author in the case of a work of joint authorship.

Although these directives apply to all EU member states, the country-specific regulations may differ, for example, in terms of how long copyrights last. Once the copyright has expired, the work is in the Public Domain and anyone can use or copy the work. However, even though the works of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Debussy and Tchaikovsky might technically be Public Domain now, a concrete edition or an arrangement thereof might not be and could be subject to copyright by the publisher of the edition. The duration of copyright also varies depending on the type of work. More information about copyrights in EU countries can be found here: EU Copyright Information. 


How do authors (copyright holders) decide what may and may not be done with their work?

A copyright holder may decide that their work can be used in certain ways. In these cases, they will publish their work under a specific licence. There are many types of licence, so in order to avoid plagiarism, you should carefully read the terms and conditions to ensure you understand how you can use the material. Most often, you will see one of the several Creative Common licence signs, explained below. Check the wording carefully to make sure you only do what the licence allows.


Creative Commons (CC) licences

Creative Commons (CC) offers several licences that allow copyright holders to make their work available for reuse.

There are six licences to choose from and each has its own terms and conditions which specify how material can be used, credited and distributed. Creative Commons licences are often used on the Internet and may be identified by the name of the licence, its abbreviation or a logo.

Creative Commons infographic that explains the licences
Creative Commons Infographic from: Technology Enhanced Learning Blog

Do’s and Don’ts for using image, film and sound

Images, films and sound recordings are all subject to copyright. This applies whether they are published or unpublished. Copyright is usually owned by the creator – photographer, illustrator, artist – apart from when material is created as part of employment (for example, a camera operator working for a production company) where the employer usually owns the copyright.

Using images

  • If you have found an image and want to share it publicly or use it commercially, you need to get permission or fully understand any licence.
  • Copyright covers images found on social networks, Google Images, image databases such as Wikimedia Commons, websites as well as those appearing in print.
  • If you are accustomed to reposting funny memes on your organisation’s social media account, which is really good for youth engagement and encompasses a whole dimension of our online culture, you also have to keep in mind that without proper attribution, you might be breaking copyright legislation.
  • Taking a photograph/screenshot of a copyrighted image does not grant you the right to use it.
  • Take care not to infringe on anyone’s privacy by using their image. Check that any people depicted (especially children) are unidentifiable or that they have granted permission for their image to be used.
  • Images are classed as ‘artistic works’ under copyright law. Therefore, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator of the work.

Using film

  • Films are the copyright of the main creators (director, screenwriter or composer). The film soundtrack will have different copyright owners.
  • You are only permitted to show films or shows to groups of people if you are not charging them anything.
  • Be cautious of material you find on YouTube, Google Videos and similar sites, especially material posted by someone other than the copyright owner.
  • Copyrights lasts for 70 years after the death of the last principal director, screenwriter or composer.

Using sound recordings

  • Sound recordings are copyright material, including those included in films and broadcast programmes. So what should you do if, say, you want to use a few seconds worth of music in a podcast or videocast? You can use copyrighted music from YouTube, for example, in three cases: if it is open source, if you have obtained a legal licence or if it can be found under creative commons. In this article, you can find step-by-step guidance with screenshots from YouTube.
  • A single piece of music, broadcast or film recording may involve multiple rights owners: there will be rights for the music, any lyrics, the performance and the recording.
  • Please note! Downloading music files or movies from the Internet without permission is illegal. Although almost anything can now be found on pirate websites, you should understand that you can be legally charged for downloading this content. Making, storing or transmitting illegal copies of music or other files at school or university is equally bad and can result in the withdrawal of your right to study.

Fair use & copyright exceptions

We are all allowed to use other people’s work to some extent. Our works and the works of others (be they a short YouTube video or a world-class painting) are parts of common cultural life. We have a right to participate in culture, which includes using its elements. We call it fair use (‘exceptions and limitations’ in the EU, ‘fair dealing’ in the UK) – legal ways of using somebody else’s work without having to ask for their permission. You can find the list of exceptions at European IPR Helpdesk website. Be aware that national copyright laws may differ from one another in relation to copyright infringement exceptions in each country.


Moral rights

When using other people’s work, you should also respect their moral rights, which are distinct from copyrights. Moral rights protect non-economic interests such as reputation.

Four categories of moral rights are associated with authorship:

  • Paternity: the right to be acknowledged as the author.
  • Integrity: the right to prevent the derogatory treatment of your work.
  • False attribution: the right to not be named as the author of work you did not create.
  • Disclosure: the right to withhold publication of an image or broadcast.

Moral rights cannot be sold or transferred, although they can be voluntarily waived. In some cases, an author may have waived their moral rights as part of an employment contract or a publishing agreement.



A trademark is a sign that distinguishes one set of goods or services from another. They can include names, logos, designs and expressions and are protected by intellectual property rights. Trademark legislation is complex, but generally works as follows:

  • A name cannot be copyrighted but can be protected as a trademark, whether used as a design or not.
  • Logos are generally protected under trademark legislation (check for the ® or ™ symbols).
  • Don’t use someone else’s trademark in a way that would allow you to profit from the logo or confuse you with the real owner.
  • You may use logos etc. to criticise or parody the trademark owner as long as it is clear you aren’t the real owner.

If you are in the EU and want to learn more about trademarks, what they protect, how to register them and for how long you can have a trademark, start here.

Copyrights are important in the world we live in, and it is equally important to know how to use them. Information is a key resource in our society, and copyrights regulate how we use this resource. Licences, trademarks and patents are the tools invented by our society to help us navigate the rules of the game and play on fair terms. Young people who start YouTube channels, blogs and Instagram and other social media accounts at an early age must be aware of the rules in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. The video advice below is good for generally introducing the topic to the young audience before diving into more detailed rules.

Featured video: COPYRIGHT Explained in 45 Seconds


Aleksandra Mangus photo
Aleksandra Mangus

With a Master Degree in Digital Literacy Education (Tampere University, Finland) Aleksandra has been working with UNESCO and other public organisations in Europe. She gives speeches and interactive workshops on MIL and youth engagement, as well as collaborates with SALTO Participation and Information Centre on creating the online Resource Pool for youth workers and educators.