A copyright is a law that gives the owner of a written document, musical composition, book, picture, or other creative work, the right to decide what other people can do with it. Copyright laws make it easier for authors to make money by selling their works. Because of copyright, a work can only be copied if the owner of the copyright gives permission.
People who copy a work that is protected under copyright without permission can be punished by the law, usually with a fine. In other, more serious cases, a person who copies a work that is protected under copyright could be arrested and go to prison.
Who owns copyright?
In most countries, authors automatically own the copyright to any work they make or create, as long as they do not give the copyright to someone else.
In most countries, there is no need to register the copyright, and some countries do not even have procedures to register copyrights. But, in countries where registration is available, without registration, it may be difficult to prove that the copyright of a work belongs to a certain author. So it is often a good idea to register anyway, especially for works that are sold for money.
If an author gets paid to make a work for someone else, the person who pays for making the work (for example, the author's employer) will often get to own the copyright instead of the author him- or herself. For example if a person working for a company like Microsoft creates a new computer software program at work, the Microsoft company would own the copyright.
Length of copyright protection
Copyright laws usually protect the owner of copyright for their entire lifetime, such as until 50 years after the author's death. This period has now been extended to 70 years in most cases. When the period of copyright protection has ended, the written document, musical composition, book, picture, or other creative work is in the public domain. This means that no one owns the copyright to them, and everyone is free to copy, use and change them without having to ask for permission or pay the owner.
An example of fair use is when newspaper writers quote several sentences from a copyright-protected document to tell the story. Another example of "fair use" is when a university professor quotes several sentences from a copyright-protected book in a review of the book, or in a research report.
Copyright in different countries
Different countries have different copyright laws. Most of the differences are about:
- whether or not the government's work falls under copyright,
- how much longer copyright lasts after the author dies or after the work is created or published, and
- what is and what is not fair use.
Because of these differences, a certain piece of work may be under copyright in one country, and in the public domain in another.
Problems with copyright
Some people argue that copyright laws make it easier for people to make new works and think of new ideas. After all, if authors get to make money for the time, effort and money they put in, then they will want to make more works later, and make more money.
But others believe that copyright laws make it harder to be creative. Without copyright, other people could reuse existing work, and copyright law often stops that.
If an author wants to sell a work, it's often easiest to give the copyright to a publisher. The publisher will do all the selling, and in return for that service, will keep part of the money. But the publisher has many different things to sell, and they may not want to sell the work the author made. Authors often find it very hard to find a publisher willing to sell their work.
But without a publisher, it can be even harder for an author to sell his or her work. In many markets, a few big publishers own the copyrights to almost everything available, and stores will not want to sell works published by small authors themselves. Many people say copyright law helps big publishers stay in control, and keeps smaller authors out of the market. (tragedy of the anticommons)
As a solution to these problems, groups of small authors have come up with the idea of open content. With open content, authors give everyone permission to copy, change and give away or sell their works, as long as they follow certain rules. These rules are explained in an open content license. Some possible open content rules are:
- If a person changes the work, or if a person makes a new derivative work based on it, they must give the original author credit (they must say who wrote it).
- If a person publishes the changed or derivative piece of work, they must let others use it under the same free license.
- Under some licenses, a person cannot sell the piece of work or use it to make money.
The term for Open Content is sometimes Copyleft.