Copyright is the right given to the creator, author or other person who may own the copyright in certain types of work, to prevent others from having that work copied (reproduced) or adapted, without authorisation.

Copyright subsists automatically and (apart from copyright in cinematograph films) cannot be registered.  It is important to consult an intellectual property attorney on aspects relating to the creation and ownership of copyright. This can be especially problematic with rights of copyright in computer programs, to name but one. Note that the South African Copyright Act number 98 of 1978 provides that assignment of copyright or an exclusive licence must be in writing. If, for example, you commissioned someone to write computer software for you, and without assigning or licensing the software on an exclusive basis, in writing, you will, in all likelihood, have a non-exclusive and cancellable licence. In other words, the person who wrote the software for you, my licence other parties or may even assign the copyright in the software to another party and cancel your licence on reasonable notice.

Works eligible for copyright include:

  1. Literary works (dramatic works, stories, novels, stage directions, broadcasting scripts, textbooks, biographies, reports, memoranda, compilations and tables). This may thus include client lists, part numbers, catalogues and the like.
  2. Artistic works (paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings, works of architecture and the like). The layout of the website may also be regarded as an artistic work.
  3. Computer programs. A computer program is defined as a set of instructions fixed or stored in any manner and which, when used directly or indirectly in a computer, directs its operation to bring about a result.
  4. Musical works, cinematograph films, sound recordings and radio and television or other online broadcasts also qualify for copyright protection.

For copyright to exist in a work, the work must be original which means that it must have been the product of the creator’s or author’s original skill and effort and the work must be reduced to material form.

Copyright in literary, musical and artistic works (excluding photographs and certain technical drawings, subsist for 50 years from the end of the year in which the author of the work dies. Copyright subsists for 50 years from the year in which legitimate copies of computer programs were first made available to the public. For most other works, copyright subsists for 50 years from the end of the year in which the work was first published or broadcast.

It is advisable to mark copyrighted works with the international copyright symbol © followed by the name of the owner of the copyright and the year in which the copyright first came into existence e.g. © ABC (Pty) Limited 2021.

Copyright is not infringed where works are used for private study, criticism, review, for reporting of current events, as background in cinematograph films, for teaching provided that mention is made of the name of the author and source of the work. A public address or lecture may also be reproduced for information purposes.