Frequently Asked Question

What is copyright?
Last Updated 5 years ago

Copyright is the right that the producer of a creative work has been granted to prevent others from copying it. Unlike a patent, however, in most places (i.e., countries) you don't have to apply for a copyright – you get one automatically every time you produce creative work.
A creative work can be almost anything – a book, a song, a picture, a photograph, a poem, a phrase, or a fictional character. In the US, buildings built on or after December 1, 1990 are also eligible for copyright.

Licenses may be granted to others, giving them the right to copy the work subject to certain conditions. A license is similar to a contract – the work may only be copied under the conditions given by the copyright holder or if one of the other exceptions to the copy right applies.
Copyright laws vary between countries; the relevant US law is Title 17. The Berne convention is a comprehensive international agreement on copyrights which is part of the copyright law of many nations.

Copyright does not protect against all possible copying: both US law and the Berne Convention limit copyright scope and enable much copying without permission even if the copyright holder objects. For example, piano roll (mechanical) rights for music within the US are available under a compulsory license with licensing rates that are set by the US Copyright Office. (To be covered by this compulsory license, the music in question must have been previously released to the public in the form of a recording at least once.)[5] In the US, fair use (in the UK, fair dealing) is explicitly permitted as well, as is the right to sell a licensed copy of a copyrighted work, such as a video tape or sound recording. Also, both the Berne Convention and US law require that a work have some original creativity to be eligible for a copyright monopoly. Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service contains some examples of US decisions about what is and isn't original, including examples such as typo correction.

"Copyright is a temporary monopoly granted by the government – it creates the legal fiction that a piece of writing or composing ... is property and can only be sold by those who have been licensed to do so by the copyright holder". – Orson Scott Card.[6] Note that it is limited to the form of expression, not to the ideas. Thus, a book by Agatha Christie is likely to be copyrighted, but the mere idea of a detective with an accent and odd personal mannerisms would not be, nor would a story about someone claiming to be the premier consulting detective in a major city be a violation of the Conan Doyle copyrights on Sherlock Holmes stories. Ideas and facts are not copyrightable in most places, only the form of expression of them.

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