What is Copyright?

"Copyright" refers to the legal recognition by the laws of the United States that certain kinds of works of authorship are personal property. The Copyright Act gives to authors of "original works of authorship," both published and unpublished, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, the right to control the copying and distribution of their works.

The copyright law has an extremely important purpose: to give authors the economic and artistic incentive to create the intellectual property that all societies need. In order to do so, the Copyright Act gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to make and to authorize others to make the following valuable uses of their work:

  • To reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or otherwise, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

It is illegal for anyone to utilize any of these exclusive rights of the copyright owner without proper permission, and only the copyright owner can authorize that permission. Mere ownership of a book, manuscript, or any other copy of a work does not give the owner the copyright. The transfer of ownership of a material object that embodies a copyrighted work does not by itself transfer any rights in the copyright. Therefore, if you purchase a book you can give or loan it to a friend, but the copyright law still prohibits photocopying or scanning the work onto a website and giving other access to the copies.

Information obtained from Friends of Active Copyright Education (FA©E), an initiative of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A., at www.face-copyright.org.

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