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Copyright for Animation

Copyright is the set of laws that govern who owns content and therefor governs its use. 

Licensing is a legal agreement that allows for the use of content, outlining who can use content, for what purpose, where, how much, etc. 

Licensing always trumps copyright.

This means that if you have a legal agreement in place that outlines the permitted or forbidden uses of content, it doesn't matter what copyright law says. A good example of this is end user license agreements (EULA), aka Terms and Conditions. If you click "I agree" to the EULA or Terms & Conditions, regardless of whether or not you read them, you are bound by the conditions they state.

  • Are you using a font for your titles? That font will come with conditions of use that may include not for commercial purposes.
  • Are you a Netflix subscriber? All that content is personal use only. There is no educational use allowed except where explicitly stated, regardless of Fair Dealing allowances in law. You may not use anything from Netflix for student work. 

In the Professional World of Animation

Animators have many layers of content which require copyright, trademark and licensing consideration:

  • images - each animated frame or cell is considered an individual copyrightable image
  • sound - sound effects and music both fall within the jurisdiction of copyright and licensing
  • scripts - the words spoken by the characters, narration and description of action are all covered by copyright and licensing
  • credit titles, captioning and labels - fonts used to create text that appears on screen are copyrightable and usually covered by an end user license agreement
  • project titles, character names and catch-phrases - may be trademarked

Crude? So What? These Characters Still Find Work in Ads - The New York Times

Each one of these areas is complicated with many layers. For example, images are multi-faceted:

  • character names and likenesses - names can be trademarked, likenesses are copyrighted from their source images or written descriptions
  • buildings in the US built after 1990 are considered copyrighted and cannot be depicted without permission; there are some use exceptions.
  • recognizable products, like car bodies, are copyrighted - their images are derivatives of the car design.
  • logos and business names are trademarked and you can't include them in a way that confuses the marketplace; however, there are allowable use in small amounts.

When is your copyright not your copyright?

You will often not own copyright when you create content as part of "regular employment". The exact rules vary from country to country, but in Canada:

  • your employer has copyright if you are a regular (as opposed to a freelance or contract) employee
  • you retain authorship, the right to be attributed as the author, and moral rights

Regular employment is determined by factors like:

  • receiving a salary
  • having an on-site office and working from that location
  • receiving benefits

Again, license beats law - if you have a terms of employment contract that specifically awards you copyright of your content, you own that copyright. On the flip side, if you are not in regular employment with an employer, but your contract states that the employer will own copyright of the content created within the terms of the contract, they own copyright of that content.