Copyrights and Contracts

Copyright All rights reserved by Siobhon van der Merwe on

I’ve been uploading videos to YouTube on and off for 3 years and I’ve experienced a few issues when it comes to the copyright policy for YouTube. Some videos I can monetize because I used music that is not copyrighted, and then there are a few videos that I can’t monetize because the music is copyrighted. My video on the Al Hamra ghost town is a good example of why I cannot monetize that video. It’s because I’ve used copyrighted content. The moment they are aware that you have uploaded copyrighted material YouTube sends an email to you listing what has been copyrighted.  If you have a good reason as to why you think your video should not receive a copyright strike, then you can send them an email and appeal their decision.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between songs that are copyrighted and songs that aren’t. This is very challenging if you’re trying to build a career in this field and earn money from your YouTube channel.

YouTube by Siobhon van der Merwe on
I also take photographs at music concerts for magazines and newspapers. Concert organisers require you to have accreditation from a suitable publisher before they even consider letting you into the photographer’s pit. As a new photographer starting out, most publishers would insist that you relinquish all rights to the photographs and give them full ownership. I did however manage to negotiate that I could use the photographs for personal use, and on my websites. As you become more successful, your ability to negotiate more favourable conditions increase.

So what is Copyright?
In simple terms it protects our creative rights, but in reality it is much more complex than just that. From my research and personal experience my first conclusion is that it is complicated, and can become an overwhelming minefield filled with lawsuits if not approached systematically and correctly. This is why successful artists employ lawyers to manage it for them.

We all understand the basic concept of what a copyright is, but very few fully understand what this involves. If we are looking at a future in this industry we need to understand copyright, not only to protect our own work, but also to ensure that we don’t infringe on someone else’s copyright and possibly end up with a claim against the company we work for, or against ourselves in a personal capacity.

To make the subject more manageable, I’ve tried to distill it to the basics, and created a schematic that covers the most important points one should be aware about. The basic definition of copyright is:

“The legal right granted to an author, composer, playwright, publisher, or distributor to exclusive publication, production, sale, or distribution of a literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic work.”  

Mind Map by Siobhon van der Merwe on

Copyright law is based on some basic principles. These principals are important because they are always used when new laws are proposed or implemented:

  • There are no formalities for establishment – ownership of copyright exists from the time of creation and does not require formal registration
  • Exclusivity – the copyright owner can decide to allow or forbid the use by a third party
  • Contractual freedom – the copyright owner can decide on the terms and conditions under which they will allow use of their work
  • Remuneration – having ownership of work stimulates people to produce more work as the copyright allows one to earn from your creations
  • Territoriality – the copyright owner decides on the geographic scope of a license
  • Enforcement – the copyright owner can take action against someone using their work without permission (Reference 1)

Copyright Basics:

The easy bit is that there is no need to register copyright ownership. The copyright exists from the moment the original work has been created.

What is covered?
Here is a list of what would be covered in most of the countries in the world, with some examples:

  • Textual material – song lyrics, novels, articles, screenplays such as journal articles, novels, screenplays, poems, song lyrics and reports. Also called “literary works”
  • Computer programs
  • Compilations –  the selection and arrangement of material is protected separately from the individual items in the compilation
  • Artistic works such as paintings, drawings, cartoons, sculpture, craft work, architectural plans, buildings, photographs, maps and plans
  • Dramatic works such as choreography, screenplays, plays and mime pieces
  • Musical works: that is, the music itself, separately from any lyrics or recording
  • Cinematograph films: the visual images and sounds in a film, video or DVD are protected separately from any copyright in works recorded on the film or video, such as scripts and music
  • Sound recordings: the particular recording itself is protected by copyright, in addition to, for example, the music or story that is recorded
  • Broadcasts: TV and radio broadcasters have a copyright in their broadcasts, which is separate from the copyright in the films, music and other material which they broadcast
  • Published editions: publishers have copyright in their typographical arrangements, which is separate from the copyright in works reproduced in the edition (such as poems or illustrations or music). (Reference 2)

So what is not protected?

  • Ideas – while copyright protects the way an idea is expressed, it does not protect ideas.
  • Concepts, styles, techniques or information.  For example, if you write an outline of your idea for a music video, the written text will be protected by copyright as a literary work.  and, generally, someone wanting to reproduce the text would need your permission. However, someone else could write their own script, using your ideas, without necessarily infringing your copyright.

How is it controlled?
Copyright is controlled and governed by a series of international treaties. The first treaty was the Berne Convention of 1886. These international treaties are designed to ensure that copyright is applied fairly and uniformly world wide. This is however not a guarantee that it does get applied though. Some countries do not recognize copyright at all, whilst others are fairly lax in applying the law. Your rights are therefore more thoroughly protected in the United States or Norway than it would be in China or Indonesia.

Registration of copyright
In certain countries Copyright Registries exist, where you can check copyright ownership, especially when copyright has been transferred to someone else. These systems are not foolproof, and need to be used with caution.

What is copyright licensing?
Before you use any material that is owned by someone else, you need to get a licensing agreement from the owner. This will spell out under what conditions you may use the material, and protect you in case of a dispute.

What are collecting societies?
Copyright collecting societies are businesses that manage copyright licences. They usually deal with people that have large amounts of copyright material. Film studios, musicians and artists would be among the people who use their services.

These days you need a licence to use almost any new content. Getting permission can be extremely difficult, especially with international boundaries and laws that vary from country to country. Getting these licenses can push fees up hugely, and in some cases make it just too expensive to use the music or poetry you planned to use. For material that is free to use, but still needs a licence (many companies will insist on you obtaining a licence just to protect themselves from legal fees), Creative Commons has been created. This allows copyright owners to have free licenses so that they can share material legally.

Does copyright expire?
It does expire – generally 70 years after the creator has died. Once copyright protection expires, the work passes into the public domain. It can then be used by anyone for any purpose without any permissioning needed.

How you manage your copyright? If your friend wants to use one of your photos on her YouTube video, a simple email giving permission would be enough. I reviewed a relatively unknown band on one of my blogs. The contract we agreed on is that I can use photos and all of their music free of charge for my blogs, as it is free marketing for them. However, if I start earning money from my blog or Youtube channel due to the use of their material, some fees will become due.

However, if a full feature film is being made, it gets a lot more complicated, and expensive. Contracts are set up which explain in detail what you can use the copyright material for, whether you can make changes to it, where you can use it, how long you can use it for, and how payments will be scheduled. Everyone in the company that uses the material needs to understand the conditions of the contract. Getting it wrong can literally cost millions.

All the documents and contracts dealing with ownership rights, copyright, and usage agreements need to be filed securely and methodically. This set of documents is called “chain of title” in the film industry. This protects original works, and makes sure that all the necessary documentation is in place.

Reference 1:

Reference 2:


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