The Difference Between Copyright and Copyleft
By Nikita Abreu

It is important to know the legal jargon surrounding intellectual property for anyone seeking to use, buy, sell or modify intellectual property. These brief explanations will give you have an idea of what copyright and copyleft mean and how they apply to you.


Copyright can be simplified as the right to copy.

What does copyright apply to?

Copyright commonly applies to intellectual property. This includes tangible original works such as literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works and film, sound recordings, broadcasts and published editions. It applies to both published and unpublished works.

Copyright applies immediately after the work is produced. In South Africa, copyright for literacy works lasts for the duration of the author’s life and fifty years after their death. Copyright for films, sound recordings and computer programs only last for fifty years from the day they were first made public. The lifespan of copyright differs for every country, but for most it is either fifty or seventy years. The creator’s work becomes public domain when the lifespan of copyright is done. When it comes to books, the imprint page allows for copyright to automatically apply. It always features the © symbol and the date of publication.

What is the purpose of copyright?

Copyright gives the creator protection for their work. It gives them control over who has access to, who can use, reproduce or adapt their work.

Take a photographer, for example. They take a photo and it is immediately copyright owned by them. This allows them to decide whether to give someone permission to use or copy their photo. They can also decide to sell the copyright to their photo. This would then give the buyer full ownership of the photo and allow them to do with it as they wish.

The photographer's photos are immediately copyright protected after creation.

It is important to also note that copyright does not protect ideas, methods of doing something, facts, thoughts or concepts.


Copyleft states that, upon distribution, the user will be free to copy, examine and improve, share, and in some cases modify the product. It provides the user with similar rights to the copyright owner. The copyright owner will still have some say over what specifically can and cannot be done to the product.

Where is copyleft commonly practised?

A common example of copyleft is seen in music. Artists often release their music under the Creative Commons Licenses. This gives people permission to use and modify their music. This allows remixes and the DJ profession to be possible. DJ’s are able to remix popular songs and sell those remixes.  

Copyleft allows the DJ to make remixes of popular songs.

Does copyleft remove copyright?

Copyleft does not eliminate copyright but works in unison to allow user freedom.

Why is it important to understand all this legal jargon?

It is important to know how this applies to you based on the intellectual property you are working with. This helps prevent negative situations where you lose ownership of the intellectual property you created and have people or companies claim it as their own. This also helps you avoid being in situations where you have broken and infringed on these laws. Infringement can lead to a fine of R5000 to R10 000, according to South Africa’s Copyright Act. Imprisonment for 3 to 5 years based on your offense is another potential consequence. This is how the law protects your intellectual property.

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Images created by Junior Gcabashe

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