South Africa: What Engineers Need To Know About Copyright

Last Updated: 13 August 2012
Article by Dina Biagio

Copyright is not just for artists.  While it can apply to products of craftsmanship or the performing arts, it can also apply to works created in an engineering context, like computer programs and engineering drawings.  In other words, if you are an engineer it is important that you know some things about copyright, like the following:

  1. Generally, copyright subsists in tangible things that are the product of someone's skill or labour.  In legalese, this "tangible thing" is called a "copyrighted work". You will probably deal mostly with artistic works (e.g. engineering drawings, photographs, flow diagrams, concept sketches, etc.); literary works (e.g. the text of user manuals) and computer programs (e.g. machine, object and source code – in fact, any instructions used to direct the operation of a machine, like the code for CNC machines used in the manufacture of components).  
  2. Copyright subsists automatically and does not need to be registered.  Sometimes a copyright notice is applied to a work but this does not impart copyright to the work.
  3. A copyrighted work can be 2-dimensional (for example, an engineering drawing, photograph, flow diagram or text in a report or manual) or 3-dimensional (an actual component, for example).
  4. Copyright lasts for a very long time (like 50 years after the death of the author but the actual time period differs depending on the type of work).  So copyright probably subsists in all works that you will deal with on a day-to-day basis.
  5. As the name suggests, COPYright prevents COPYing of an original work.  It does not entitle the owner to prevent someone else from independently creating the same work.  This means that the original work must be 'closely referenced' when creating the new work, for there to be an infringement of the copyright in the original work.  But what does 'close reference' mean? As a general rule: if the original work is 'at your left elbow' when making the new work, you are probably infringing the copyright.  Conversely, if you have an original work, but you lock it away in a storeroom before starting on your own work, you are probably not infringing.
  6. Adapting is also prohibited.  Adapting a copyrighted work could mean making a 3-dimensional copy of a 2-dimensional work.  In other words, if you make a component from someone else's engineering drawing, it is an infringement of the copyright in that drawing.  If you have the same product as a German company and you translate some sections of its German user manual into English for your own product, it is an infringement of the copyright.

So to summarise:



You photocopy an original drawing.

Copyright infringement

You redraw the original drawing, with the original drawing at your left elbow.

Copyright infringement

Having seen the original drawing, you lock it away and create your own drawing.

No copyright infringement

You make a component from an original drawing.

Copyright infringement

You make a translation of an original work

Copyright infringement

  1. There is a reverse engineering exception in our law when it comes to artistic works of a technical nature. An unauthorised 3-D copy/adaptation of an original component will not constitute an infringement of the copyright in that original component, provided that: the original component was made available to the public by the copyright owner (or with its consent); and the original component has primarily, a utilitarian purpose, and is made by an industrial process. 

    In other words, you are allowed to "reverse engineer" someone else's component by manufacturing a 3-D copy/adaptation of that component.  The copyright legislation only specifically authorises the making of a 3-D adaptation from (freely available, utilitarian and industrially produced) 3-D works but despite the wizardry of engineers, this doesn't (usually) happen with the wave of a magic wand.   Typically, the component is measured up and drawings are created from these measurements.  A new component is then manufactured from the drawings.  In effect, when reverse engineering, a 3-D component is created from a 2-D adaptation of a 3-D original component, and the 2-D work is not specifically authorised by the copyright legislation.  

    Unfortunately, the question of whether the intermediate drawings fall within the reverse engineering exception and therefore whether they can be made and used in the reverse engineering process has never been considered by our courts.  What is clear however, is that to even have a shot at being legal, drawings created in a reverse engineering process can only be used for the purpose of making the 3-D component, they could not, for example, be published in a book, tender invitation or used for any other purpose.
  2. Copyright infringement can be difficult to prove because it is not enough for a plaintiff to show mere similarity between two works, he has to prove actual copying.

    If you are creating an original copyrighted work it helps to include fingerprints that could help you prove copying if the need arose.  For example, you could include random indicators, which if copied by an infringer  would make compelling evidence of copyright infringement.  These could be remark lines in a computer program or a watermark on a drawing, for example.

    Conversely, if you are accused of copyright infringement and can't produce any evidence to show reverse engineering or that your works were created independently, a plaintiff may have a chance of tipping the scale of probability in his favour.  It's a good idea to give drawings back to their owner if you do not need them for something which the owner has authorised you to do. Also, when embarking on a process of reverse engineering, document every stage of the process to make sure that, if the need arises, you can produce evidence to show that you are not guilty of copyright infringement.

Let's look at some practical examples:



You hand a freely-available OEM manual containing component drawings to a manufacturer. 

No copying so no copyright infringement. 

You hand a drawing acquired from someone else to a manufacturer.

Again, there is no copying and therefore no copyright infringement.  But if you pass a drawing that was provided to you under (even tacit) conditions of confidentiality (in other words a drawing that is not freely available), you will be in breach of this agreement.  Also, by providing a manufacturer with someone else's drawing you may be setting the manufacturer up for copyright infringement, if the intention is that the manufacturer will manufacture from the drawing. 

You make a photocopy of the OEM drawing and hand this to the manufacturer.

Go back to START and do not collect R200.

You show the OEM drawing to a manufacturer for the purpose of explaining how the component works, etc. 

No copying  so no copyright infringement.

The manufacturer produces a component, from the OEM drawing.

The manufacturer is infringing the copyright in the OEM drawing (despite the fact that the drawing may be published in the OEM's manuals, which are freely available).

The manufacturer puts the drawing aside, then creates its own drawing and manufactures the component from its own drawing.

No copyright infringement (but the manufacturer may have trouble proving that it created its own drawing while it was in possession of an identical one). 

You deliver a faulty component to a manufacturer for it to reverse engineer a replacement.

No copying so no copyright infringement.

You provide access to a third party to inspect a faulty component for the purposes of reverse engineering a replacement.

No copying so no copyright infringement.

You include the OEM drawing in an invitation for third parties to quote for reverse engineering a replacement. 

You are reproducing the OEM's drawing in your tender invitation and this is a copyright infringement.

You make a drawing from the faulty component through reverse engineering, and then include this drawing in an invitation to tender for the manufacture of a replacement.


The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Mondaq Advice Centre (MACs)
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.