Copyright Explained: Definition, Types, and How It Works


Investopedia / Joules Garcia

What Is Copyright?

Copyright refers to the legal right of the owner of intellectual property. In simpler terms, copyright is the right to copy. This means that the original creators of products and anyone they give authorization to are the only ones with the exclusive right to reproduce the work.

Copyright law gives creators of original material the exclusive right to further use and duplicate that material for a given amount of time, at which point the copyrighted item becomes public domain.

Key Takeaways

  • Copyright law protects creators of original material from unauthorized duplication or use.
  • For an original work to be protected by copyright laws, it has to be in tangible form.
  • In the U.S., the work of creators is protected by copyright laws until 70 years after their death.

How Copyrighting Works

When someone creates a product that is viewed as original and that required significant mental activity to create, this product becomes an intellectual property that must be protected from unauthorized duplication. Examples of unique creations include computer software, art, poetry, graphic designs, musical lyrics and compositions, novels, film, original architectural designs, website content, etc. One safeguard that can be used to legally protect an original creation is copyright.

Under copyright law, a work is considered original if the author created it from independent thinking void of duplication. This type of work is known as an Original Work of Authorship (OWA). Anyone with an original work of authorship automatically has the copyright to that work, preventing anyone else from using or replicating it. The copyright can be registered voluntarily by the original owner if they would like to get an upper hand in the legal system in the event that the need arises.

Not all types of work can be copyrighted. A copyright does not protect ideas, discoveries, concepts, or theories. Brand names, logos, slogans, domain names, and titles also cannot be protected under copyright law. For an original work to be copyrighted, it has to be in tangible form. This means that any speech, discoveries, musical scores, or ideas have to be written down in physical form in order to be protected by copyright.

In the U.S., original owners are protected by copyright laws all of their lives until 70 years after their death. If the original author of the copyrighted material is a corporation, the copyright protection period is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years, whichever expires first.

U.S. copyright law has experienced a number of amendments and changes that have altered the duration of copyright protection. The "life of the author plus 70 years" protection can be attributed to the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, (also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act or Sonny Bono Act), which generally increased copyright protections by 20 years.

Copyright protection varies from country to country, and can stand for 50 to 100 years after the individual’s death, depending on the country.

Copyright vs. Trademarks and Patents

While copyright law is not all-encompassing, other laws, such as patent and trademark laws, may impose additional sanctions. Although copyrights, trademarks, and patents are frequently used interchangeably, they offer different forms of protection for intellectual property.

Trademark laws protect material that is used to distinguish an individual’s or corporation’s work from another entity. These materials include words, phrases, or symbols—such as logos, slogans, and brand names—which copyright laws do not cover. Patents cover inventions for a limited period of time. Patented materials include products such as industrial processes, machines, and chemical positions.

Article Sources
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  2. U.S. Copyright Office. "Copyright Authorship: What Can Be Registered."

  3. U.S. Copyright Office. "What Does Copyright Protect?"

  4. U.S. Copyright Office. "Duration of Copyright," Page 1.

  5. Yeshiva University, Cardozo Law School. "Disney's Influence on U.S. Copyright Law."

  6. U.S. Congress. "S.505 - Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act."

  7. U.S. Copyright Office. "Duration of Copyright."

  8. United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). "Trademark, Patent, or Copyright."