What Is a Copyright?

Definition & Examples of a Copyright

Woman painting on the floor at home
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A copyright is a form of intellectual property that gives someone the sole rights to reproduce creative work. 

Learn more about copyrights, how they work, and if you should register yours.

What Is a Copyright?

The definition of copyright is in the word itself: It is the right to copy. It describes the legal rights of the owner of intellectual property. A person who owns the copyright to work, such as song lyrics or an original drawing, is the only person who can copy that work or grant permission to someone else to copy it. In addition to being able to assign their copyright, license it, or use it for funding, copyright holders may also collect royalties when others use their copyrighted work.

Both published and unpublished works can be covered by copyright.

Copyright law applies to a broad range of intellectual property, including:

  • Writings: Books, articles, reviews, poems, essays, blogs, plays, movies, and broadcasts
  • Website contents: Text, pictures, graphics, and even the page layout
  • Computer programs: Business, personal, and entertainment
  • Motion pictures or audio: Movies, TV programs, and podcasts
  • Music: Lyrics and instrumentals, both recorded and performed
  • Artistic works: Paintings, drawings, sculptures, graphics, maps, charts, and photography
  • Original architectural designs: Designs for municipal, commercial, and residential buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or operation methods. For something to be copyrightable, it must have some sort of tangible expression.

How Copyrights Work

Copyright differs from other intellectual property because it is automatically created when a person creates a copyrightable work that is an original literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic work. There is no need to register such an original work for it to be copyrighted. As soon as an individual creates an original piece of art, for example, they have automatic copyright on the resulting work.

However, both the U.S. and Canadian governments recommend registering your copyright to provide an extra layer of protection. Your copyright certificate can be used in a court of law to provide evidence of ownership, making your legal case stronger. This protection even extends internationally to a degree. Unlike other intellectual property rights, copyrights are automatically applied to many countries that have copyright treaties with the U.S. and Canada.

Countries and their copyright relations with the U.S. can be found on document Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.

Copyright duration varies from country to country. In Canada, copyright lasts for the duration of the creator's life plus 50 years from the end of the calendar year of the creator's death. In the United States and the United Kingdom, copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Notable Happenings

One of the most famous copyright infringement cases involved Apple filing suit against Microsoft in 1988 after various releases of the Microsoft Windows operating system. Apple claimed that the graphical user interface (GUI) of the Macintosh operating system (OS) was protected by copyright and that the similarity of some aspects of Windows constituted copyright infringement. 

The suit was further complicated when Xerox filed a lawsuit against Apple, claiming that Apple had used elements of Xerox's GUI design in the Macintosh OS. The courts rejected Apple's claims based on the following conclusions:

  1. Apple had previously licensed individual elements of the GUI design to Microsoft.
  2. Other elements of the GUI design came from Xerox (and were therefore not original).
  3. The "look and feel" of the GUI could not be copyrighted.

This case reinforces the definition of copyright put forth here. The court ruled that Apple could not claim copyright protection for ideas, but only their specific expression. If you're wondering whether to seek a copyright for your creation, or if you are at risk of violating someone else's, start by examining whether you're dealing with a tangible good or work. If so, it's worth doing some further research.

Penalties for Violating Copyright

Penalties for copyright infringement can be quite severe, depending on the nature of the offense. These can include fines of up to $150,000 in the U.S. and $1 million in Canada, plus attorney and court costs. Additionally, any items that violate copyright can be impounded, and the offender may be given jail time. Because of these harsh consequences for copyright infringement, it's important to know copyright laws to protect your own rights and avoid infringing on those of others.

Key Takeaways

  • A copyright is a form of intellectual property that gives someone the exclusive rights to reproduce creative work.
  • As soon as an individual creates an original piece of art, they have automatic copyright on the resulting work.
  • In the U.S., copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Copyright Office."FAQ." Accessed August 12, 2020.

  2. U.S. Copyright Office. "Circular 38A," Pages 4–13. Accessed August 12, 2020.

  3. U.S. Copyright Office. "Duration of Copyright," Page 1. August 12, 2020.

  4. Harvard Law School. "Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 759 F. Supp. 1444 (1991)." Accessed August 12, 2020.

  5. U.S. Copyright Office. "Chapter 5: Copyright Notice, Deposit, and Registration." Accessed August 12, 2020.