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Digital Materials

Is there any difference between the copyright for printed materials and digital materials?

Copyright in digital materials

Original authors’ works and subject matter other than works which are in a digital format enjoy copyright protection in the same manner as non-digital materials. In order to enjoy copyright protection, a work must be original and must exist in a material form. Under Section 17 of the Copyright Act, the reduction of a work into a material form includes the storage of the work in a computer and on any medium by electronic means.

In addition, a literary work is defined to include a compilation in any form as well as a computer program. This definition of literary work is broad enough to include digital materials such as electronic databases, computer source codes, websites and blogs.

Any copyright which subsists in a compilation (such as a website), is in addition to and independent of any copyright in the underlying materials (such as the text, images and music on the website). This compilation copyright however, is only limited to the selection or arrangement of its contents which constitutes an intellectual creation.

Use of copyrighted digital materials

Copyright owners have the same exclusive rights in relation to digital materials and materials in print form. The copyright owner’s exclusive right of reproduction extends to the making of a copy which is transient or incidental to some other use of the work.

While reproducing, publishing, and communicating copyright materials is made easier when the materials are in a digital format, the sharing of digital materials (for example, songs, photographs, or even the soft copies of readings for one of your modules) with your friends through Dropbox or Google Drive may infringe copyright unless one of the defences applies.

The ease of making perfect copies of digital copyright works has made the effective enforcement of copyright in the digital realm much more difficult for copyright owners. As such, some copyright owners have turned to technological measures or digital rights management mechanisms to protect their works.

Common measures are copy control mechanisms (for example, locked pdf documents which prevent copying) and access control mechanisms (for example, encryption and passwords). The circumvention of these technological measures not only gives rise to civil liability, but may also amount to a criminal offence if done wilfully and for the purpose of obtaining a commercial advantage or private financial gain.

Copyright infringement defences for digital materials

In general, the defences (such as the consent of the copyright owner, fair dealing and the special defences for educational institutions) which apply to materials in print form also apply to digital materials.

The following are some defences which are specific to digital materials:

Fair dealing for digital materials

In general, where a literary, dramatic or musical work is stored on any medium by electronic means, and where the copying is for the specific purposes of research and study, copying within the following limits is allowed:

  • Not more than 10% of the total number of bytes in that edition
  • Not more than 10% of the total number of words in that edition
  • Where it is not practicable to use total number of words, not more than 10% of the contents of that edition.


Making a back-up copy of a computer program

If you own a copy of a computer program (for example, Adobe Photoshop), the making of a reproduction of the program will not amount to an infringement of copyright if the reproduction is made for the purpose of only being used by yourself in lieu of your original copy in the event that your original copy is lost, destroyed or rendered unusable. This defence, is only applicable if the copy of the computer program that you own is an original one. If, your copy was a counterfeit or unauthorised copy, you would not be able to make such a back-up copy without infringing the copyright in the computer program.


Filming or recording broadcasts or programmes for private, domestic use

Section 114 of the Copyright Act sets out a defence which allows the making of a cinematograph film or a sound recording of a television broadcast, sound broadcast or a cable programme so long as the film or recording is made for the private and domestic use of the person who makes the film or recording. The copyright in the broadcast or cable programme, together with the copyright in the underlying material (literary, dramatic, musical, artistic work, cinematograph film and sound recording) included in the broadcast or cable programme is not infringed.