Copyright is a legal right that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution, usually for a limited time, with the intention of enabling the creator to receive compensation for their effort.


Copyright is an intellectual property right that grants the creator of an original work a set of exclusive rights (generally, to use and distribute the work) for a limited period of time. The purpose of copyright is to encourage and support creativity in the arts and sciences by giving the creator (i.e. the author of a book, the painter of a painting, etc) a means of receiving compensation for the intellectual effort.

Traditionally, copyright was said to be territorial. This meant that copyright did not extend beyond a particular country's jurisdiction unless that country was part of an international agreement. Today, this is much less relevant because the vast majority of countries are party to at least one such agreement.

While all countries have a unique set of copyright laws, most countries recognize copyright in any completed work (without a requirement of formal copyright registration), copyright is enforced as a civil matter, and the duration of copyright is the entire life of the creator plus 50 - 100 years.

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Copyright applies to a wide range of creative, intellectual, and artistic works. The following types of works are protected by copyright in most jurisdictions: poems, theses, plays, literary works, motion pictures, choreography, musical composition, sound recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, architectural blue prints, photographs, computer software, radio and television broadcasts, and industrial designs.

Copyright does not cover ideas and information, it only covers the particular way in which ideas and information are expressed. For example, Disney has copyright protection on Mickey Mouse. This allows the company to prevent other artists or companies from creating works that mimic or directly copy Mickey Mouse. However, Disney cannot have copyright in the core idea of an anthropomorphic mouse, merely the unique way in which Mickey Mouse expresses the idea of an anthropomorphic mouse.

Exclusive Rights

The phrase "exclusive right" means that only the copyright holder can exercise those rights, and others are legally prohibited from using the work without the copyright holder's permission.

The exclusive rights that typically attach to the holder of a copyright include:

  • to produce copies or reproductions of the work and to sell those copies (including, typically, electronic copies)
  • to import or export the work
  • to create derivative works (works that adapt the original work)
  • to perform or display the work publicly
  • to sell or cede these rights to others
  • to transmit or display by radio or video

Limitations to Copyright

Idea–expression dichotomy and the merger doctrine

As mentioned above, you cannot obtain copyright in an idea. You can only obtain copyright in the unique expression of an idea. In the United States, this principle has been codified by the Copyright Act of 1976 at 17 U.S.C. § 102(b).

The first-sale doctrine

Copyright law does not prohibit the owner of a copy from reselling the copy, provided that the copy was legally produced. For example, you have the legal right to resell a copyrighted book or CD

Additionally, copyright generally does not prohibit one from modifying, defacing, or destroying their own legitimately obtained copy of a copyrighted work, so long as they are not duplicating the work. For example, one can buy a copyrighted painting and then draw on it.

Fair use

Copyright law does not prohibit all copying or replication. In the United States, the fair use doctrine, codified by the Copyright Act of 1976, permits some copying and distribution without the permission of the copyright holder.

Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, parody, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor balancing test.

The four-factor balancing test is as follows:

  • the purpose and character of one's use (i.e. are you using the copyrighted work for commercial gain or for social commentary)
  • the nature of the copyrighted work (i.e. is this a fantasy based story you're copying, or a hard-hitting news story)
  • what amount and proportion of the whole work was taken
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

The United Kingdom and many other Commonwealth countries have a similar notion of fair dealing that was established by the courts or through legislation.


Copyright term

In most of the word, the default length of copyright is the life of the author plus 50 - 70 years. In the United States, the term for most existing works is fixed number of years after the date of publication. Generally, copyrights expire at the end of the calendar year in question.

In the United States, the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act extended the length of a copyright by 20 years. This legislation was strongly supported by corporations which had valuable copyrights that otherwise would have expired and fallen into the public domain. There has been much debate surrounding this point.

The following graph pictures the expansion of copyright term protection in the United States:

copyright duration

Source: Original author, Tom Bell, released it on his website under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Public domain

Once the term of a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain. In the public domain the work is free to be used or exploited by anyone.

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