Copyright - It's Economic

by © Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant
Originally published in The Celebrant, Issue 8, June 2021, pp 14-23
Republished 10/03/2023 with the permission of the Editor.
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A word to non-celebrant readers

The original article (below) was written for an audience of celebrants. It does, however, explain why your celebrant will acknowledge the author of any poem or reading used in your ceremony.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide and heads-up to celebrants about the basics of copyright and moral rights. You should familiarize yourself with the specific intellectual property legislation in your own country.

Copyright is an exclusive property right. It is the legal right of the creator, or someone the creator has assigned copyright to, to control and profit from how creative material, as an object, and therefore an asset, is used. Since the invention of the printing press opened the way for easy reproduction of text, in particular, it has been an important protection for the creators of original literary “works”. In the 21st century it has become even more important, thanks to the way Google and SEO respond to multiple copies of the same material. However, misconceptions are widespread.

A little bit of history


The Berne Convention (1886) established recognition of copyrights amongst sovereign nations, allowing foreign and domestic authors being treated equivalently in any country that is a signatory. In 1995, The World Trade Organization incorporated the Berne Convention regulations into its TRIPS agreement, giving creators of “works” close to global copyright protection.

Some basic facts about Copyright


  • Copyright is an intellectual property right that gives the owner of a creative 'work' the exclusive right to make copies of that 'work'.
  • Copyright subsists in the 'work' once it is fixed in tangible form. What this means for a celebrant is that once you have created a ceremony script, for example, it is copyright-protected. An extempore ceremony would not be protected.
  • To be eligible for copyright protection a 'work' must be an original 'work' that meets the requirements for copyrighted material. The operative word is original, which does not necessarily mean that the 'work' is unique. It is conceivable that two different authors may own copyright on substantially identical 'works', as long as it can be determined that the apparent duplication was coincidental, and neither 'work' was copied from the other.
  • Copyright is separate from the property right in an object. Owning a book does not give you ownership of the copyright,  unless it has been assigned to you by the copyright holder. Likewise, if you give a copy of their ceremony script to a couple you retain the copyright unless you also assign your copyright in that ceremony to them.

Things that can't be copyrighted


No one can copyright ideas or information, You can only copyright  the form or manner in which those ideas or that information is expressed. For example, if you have developed a symbolic ritual you cannot copyright the idea of that symbolic ritual, however original it might be, but the text you created in relation for that ritual is protected.

Other things of relevance to a celebrant that can’t be copyrighted:
  • Names, including Business Names, Titles of a 'work' (eg a poem or a book), Slogans, or Short Phrases. These may, however, be trademarked, an expensive and quite difficult process that requires you to meet a high threshold of originality. For example, while my application to trademark Pride Ceremonies® was successful, my application to trademark Warm and Wonderful Weekday Weddings was rejected on the grounds that if failed to meet the threshold of originality.
  • Non-transcribed speeches (unless it has been recorded on video). Worth noting if you are a celebrant who “wings it”.
  • Ideas and Concepts
In addition, a celebrant cannot claim copyright over a ceremony, for example, which is highly derivative. To put it bluntly, if you knocked off significant amounts of someone else’s 'work' and are passing it off as your own, even in a highly adapted form, you cannot claim copyright over the whole work, even if it is partly your original work. This applies to websites and blogs as well.

EDIT: This article was written before the celebrants started to get all excited about the possibility of using Artificial Intelligence tools to write ceremonies. So the whole question of copyright as it might apply to bot-written works has not been tested in court. However, the basic principle would suggest that a celebrant could not claim copyright over a 'work' wholly or partly created by an artificial intelligence tool.

What does copyright allow you to do?


As with any other form of property, copyright gives you, as the owner, the right to decide whether someone else can use the 'work' and how they can use it. As the copyright holder you have the legal right to allow or stop someone else from
  • Reproducing it in various forms, for example, a printed publication or a sound recording
  • Performing it in public, or broadcasting it to the public
  • Making copies and distributing them
  • Translating it into another language
  • Adapting it

What do you have to do to assert your copyright in a 'work' you have created?


In most countries you are not required to register or apply for copyright in your 'work'. Nonetheless, where your country’s laws provide for registration there could be some monetary benefits in registering it should your copyright be infringed.

Regardless of whether you have registered it or not, it is best practice to attach a copyright notice to each 'work', including your website. Such a notice would include ©, the letter C inside a circle, or the word Copyright, followed by the year of the first publication of the 'work' and your name.

What if you are an employee working for someone else?


Let’s say you are a “staff celebrant” for a business, perhaps a funeral home or wedding venue. As a paid employee any ceremony or other material you create will be a “work for hire”, and as such, your employer will own the copyright.

It is therefore important to clarify that you retain the intellectual property when you are create a ceremony for a couple who have hired you directly, and to detail that in your contract, together with what you give them permission to do with it. You should also put a copyright statement on every draft!

How long does your copyright last?


Original 'works' are copyright-protected for a certain number of years after the death of the creator. Generally that period will be for 70 years, though some jurisdictions specify a shorter or longer period. Some jurisdictions allow copyright to be extended. Others do not.

What happens when you die?


Because it is a property right, you can bequeath your copyright to anyone you wish. In your will.

How might your copyright be infringed?

If your 'work' is reproduced or otherwise used by someone who has no legal right to do so, that person infringes your copyright. The most likely ways in which someone might infringe a celebrant’s copyright would be by downloading and uploading to their own website, republishing in any form, adapting and using or publishing, or performing the 'work' in a public space without having your permission to do so. A 'work' does not have to be copied in its entirety for that copying to be classified as copyright infringement

Other things you need to know

  • There is a difference between a published “work” and one that is in the public domain
    Regardless of how freely accessible it might be, publishing a 'work' is not the same as putting it in the public domain, though people often confuse the two. So publishing on your website where anyone can find it, does not mean that the work has entered the public domain, where it can be freely used by anyone.
  • Infringement and profit
    Not making any money from copyright infringing use of someone else’s copyrighted material does not let you off the hook.
  • The threshold of originality
    To even qualify to be protected by copyright a 'work' must meet (quite low) standards of originality. In Australia, for example, the author has to have exercised some skill, labour, and effort,  and in the UK, some skill, labour, and judgment . Being required to pass a test of originality does not mean that the 'work' has to be totally unique (as in new and novel). By its nature, for example, a wedding ceremony can be original, but will hardly be unique, given the numbers of wedding ceremonies created and conducted every day..
  • Fair use
    Usage that would otherwise be an infringement is allowed under the doctrine of 'fair use', often referred to as the 10% rule. The problem is that it is not the amount, but the way in which that amount is used, that defines whether the usage is fair. You can quote in review or criticism, in new reporting, in research, and for educational purposes (eg in an essay written as a student). And that’s it. Celebrant use falls outside of these.
  • Giving the original author proper credit does not absolve anyone from infringing copyright
  • Copying licences exist. In Australia, Celebrant Associations commonly obtain a group copying licence on behalf of members. It is worth exploring whether you can be covered by one if you are based in another country. Licences are available in the UK, New Zealand and Canada and may be available in other countries.

Thanks for reading!

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                        Jennifer Cram
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