What Is Copyright?

True Tamplin

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®
Updated on January 18, 2021

Copyrights are a type of intellectual property protection that provide its owner with the exclusive right to reproduce their works for a defined period of time. Copyrights are automatic and begin the moment that the work is created and exists in tangible form. They are most often applied to:

  • Literary works like poetry, novels, speeches, and songs.
  • Computer code
  • Plays, movies, and TV shows
  • Pictures, sculptures, and architecture on buildings

History of Copyright

In modern parlance, copyright is often considered from the perspective of an author or creator, meaning it is designed to benefit them. But its history began with the “stationers copyright” through which booksellers in medieval England sought to profit from bringing an author’s work to the market. This type of copyright was not created by common law; rather, it was created by a special group of people to protect their interests. Enforcing it was not a problem because the bookseller industry had few players, ensuring that an author had few recourses for grievances and alternatives for business, if they did not agree with the group.

The statute of Anne is the basis of modern copyright law. It was originally passed by the English parliament in 1710 and was imported into America by English colonists. The statute was a successor to the Licensing of the Press Act, which allowed a guild of printers to set the terms for publishing an author’s work. As part of these terms, the guild could also censor the work, a fact that did not sit well with authors. The Act was renewed after every two years by the English parliament. However, increasing author dissatisfaction with it led to its non-renewal towards the end of 15th century. The Statute of Anne was suggested as a compromise by the guild. The statute granted authors and their publishers exclusive rights on their work for fourteen years, following which they became part of the public domain.

Modern Copyright

The duration of a modern copyright differs between jurisdictions and the type of work artifact created. The Copyright Act of 1976 stipulates that the copyright term for work created lasts for the author’s lifetime plus another 70 years. Work that was created for hire, anonymously, or pseudonymously can have a copyright duration of 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter. This temporary monopoly provided by copyright protection enables the author to profit from their work before others copy it. Once the term expires, however, copyrights enter the public domain.

Copyright ownership provides its authors with six exclusive rights. They are:

  • The right to reproduce and make copies of an original work;
  • The right to prepare derivative works based on the original work;
  • The right to distribute copies to the public by sale or another form of transfer, such as rental or lending;
  • The right to publicly perform the work;
  • The right to publicly display the work, and
  • The right to perform sound recordings publicly through digital audio transmission.

Adaptation of works that were created before the existence of copyright law are subject to copyright but the original works are not. For example, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet published by an author or one with specific notes attached to it can be copyrighted. However, the text of the original play exists in the public domain.

While it is not necessary, registering copyright on original work provides certain advantages. For example, registered copyrights make it easier to bring legal claims and infringement suits. Copyright registration also establishes a public record and can entitle the holder to bigger damages in a lawsuit. In recent years, public copyright licenses have become a popular method for creators and companies to distribute their work in the public domain, while still asserting their ownership over it.

Public copyright licenses, such as Creative Commons and Free Open-Source Software (FOSS), grant copyright licensees the right to use and adapt the original work based upon certain conditions set by the work’s author or creator. For example, Linux is an open-source operating system available for free over the Internet. However, variants of the operating system have been customized to make it more user-friendly or to add more features to its capabilities. These variants use the GNU General Public License (GPL), which aims to keep the software free, to distribute the system.

Copyrights can also be transferred, assigned, or licensed. For example, a musician or author may transfer copyright for their work to a recording company or book publisher to reach a wider audience. Such transfers are generally recorded in writing. Copyright licenses are used to produce imitations or cover versions of original work. In such arrangements, the licensee informs the copyright holder of their intentions and pays a set amount for the original work.

Copyrights are big business and notable creative artists have used it to generate hefty paydays for their work. For example, American singer and music legend Bob Dylan sold his entire catalog of songs to Universal Publishing Group in 2020. While the sale’s exact figure is not known, some estimate it to be as much as $300 million.

Copyright versus Trademarks and Patents

Copyrights differ from patents because they only protect the expression of an idea or process and not the idea itself. For example, a book about a new dieting technique can be protected by copyright but the technique itself, which is the idea contained in the book, can only be patented, not copyrighted.

Copyrights are also different from trademarks, which are a type of intellectual protection reserved for signs, designs, or phrases. Branding logos and names are examples of trademarks. In the previous example, the dieting technique may have a brand name and logo, say DietPlan, to easily identify and distinguish it from other, similar products in the market. The brand name can be trademarked by its creator to identify their product in the market. Competitors or services using the words DietPlan in the order, style, and font trademarked by the product’s creator are eligible to be sued.

There are several things that cannot be copyrighted. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Works that are not tangible, such as an improvisational speech that hasn’t been written down.
  • Ideas, processes, systems, and methods. Patents are used for these.
  • Slogans, titles, short phrases, and names. Trademarks are used for these.

Copyright FAQs

Copyrights are a type of intellectual property protection that provide its owner with the exclusive right to reproduce their works for a defined period of time.
Copyright law is a legal area relating to copyrights and ownership of intellectual property.
Copyrights are most often applied to literary works like poetry, novels, speeches, and songs; computer code; plays, movies, and TV shows; and pictures, sculptures, and architecture on buildings
Registered copyrights make it easier to bring legal claims and infringement suits.