Copyright is a branch or subsection of intellectual property law which aims to protect the outputs of intellect through, for example, trademarks, patents, designs, software licenses and copyright. In this learning pathway we restrict our study to providing an introduction to to copyright law.

In his book Free Culture. How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, Lawrence Lessig argues that the default “© copyright all rights reserved” (applicable in most countries) contradicts the original purpose of copyright: to promote progress in science and the useful arts – a public good.[1] The purpose is not to enrich publishers or authors, or to grant them undue influence on development and distribution of culture.

Disclaimer: These course materials are designed to provide an introduction to copyright for learners. This learning pathway forms part of a course on open education, copyright and open licensing and should not be considered as a replacement for detailed study of copyright law. However, copyright is prerequisite knowledge to understand and implement open content licensing. These course materials are not intended to provide legal advice. Copyright is a complex area of law and there are differences between the copyright legislation of individual countries around the world which cannot be addressed in a generic introductory unit. Please consult a qualified legal professional for advice on copyright at your institution.

Getting started: Test your knowledge


Copyright-taster quiz

Indicate whether the following statements are true or false:

  • You must register your copyright otherwise published materials are copyright free.
    • True
      • No. The default position is that all works are copyrighted as “all rights reserved”. You should generally assume that all works are protected by copyright.
    • False
      • Correct. There is no requirement to “register” copyright. The default position is “all rights reserved” copyright. You should generally assume that all works are protected by copyright.
  • You are free to repackage and sell content sourced from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
    • True
      • Correct. There are no commercial restrictions on repackaging Wikipedia content, as long as your products are licensed under the same license used by Wikipedia.
    • False
      • Incorrect. The copyright license used by Wikipedia does not restrict commercial activity on condition that you share your products under the same license.
  • You are free to copy and reuse content which can be openly accessed on the web for educational purposes.
    • True
      • No. The fact that a resource is accessible on a public website does not necessarily change the copyright protections.
    • False
      • Correct. Public access on a website does not necessarily grant permissions for reusing and copying materials for educational purposes.
  • You can reuse, adapt and modify content published in the Public Domain without attributing the source.
    • True
      • It depends. The public domain means that the holder has waived all copyrights including the requirement for attribution in the case of a work dedicated to the public domain. However, in some countries, it is not possible to waive moral rights (attribution). Frrom an ethical perspective, attributing your sources is the right thing to do.
    • False
      • It depends. While attributing your sources is the right thing to do — there is not necessarily a legal requirement to attribute the source of works in the public domain. However, the question of moral rights may arise depending on a number of factors.
  • You will not infringe copyright as long as you don’t make money from the use of the materials.
    • True
      • Incorrect. Generally speaking, copyright protections apply irrespective of whether money changes hands.
    • False
      • Correct. The reuse of all rights reserved materials without permission of the copyright holder for non-profit purposes would constitute a breach of copyright.
  • If there is no copyright symbol or notice, then you can assume the work is copyright free.
    • True
      • Incorrect. The absence of a copyright notice does not mean that the holder has abandoned copyright. You should assume the default position of “all rights reserved” copyright.
    • False
      • Correct. The default position when the author has not otherwise indicated copyright is that the work is copyrighted as “all rights reserved”. You should generally assume that all works are protected by copyright.
  • If the materials use a Creative Commons license, you are free to reuse, adapt, mix and modify these resources for educational purposes.
    • True
      • Incorrect. The permissions and restrictions associated with a Creative Commons license depend on the type of Creative Commons license used.
    • False
      • Yes. You must confirm which type of Creative Commons license is used in order to determine the permissions for reuse.
  • You may not sell a copyrighted book you own
    • True
      • Incorrect. Copyright does not restrict the property rights of the legal owner to sell or gift second-hand books. The design speficiations of a motor vehicle do not belong to the owner of a car, and this does not restrict the rights of ownership.
    • False
      • Correct. Copyright is not intended to restrict the free circulation of goods and the principle of exhaustion permits owners of books to resell or gift physical books.

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Acknowledgement: Some questions in this quiz were inspired by “Some common misconceptions” by smartcopying.




Copyright is a legal concept which grants creators (authors, musicians, artists and other creators) the rights of ownership and protection against unauthorised uses of their works for a fixed period. Copyright may provide protections for personal interests called “moral rights” and attempts to balance exclusive rights of copyright holders with the interests of society at large by providing a number of exceptions and limitations.

Public domain

The public domain refers to creative works which are not protected by intellectual property rights at all and available for use by all members of the public. Works enter the public domain when the intellectual property rights have expired or the creator donates work to the public domain by forfeiting all intellectual property rights. Because copyright law is different from country to country, the recognition and meaning of the public domain will vary across national boundaries. Some countries may limit the use of public domain works or may not acknowledge public domain works at all.

web resources

Web resources

Recommended resources and readings available online


  1. Lessig, L. 2004. Free Culture. How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. The Penguin Press.