Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Mary. Mary Wonders, “What is copyright?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Mary!
Do you ever make homemade cards for your friends and family members for special occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries? A short poem paired with an original drawing can make someone's day and turn into a keepsake they'll treasure forever.
After you give your homemade card to a loved one, you probably don't give it much thought. But what if that person made copies of it and started to sell them on the Internet? What if people loved your words and artistry so much that they paid thousands of dollars for copies of your work?
Would you feel like that money rightfully belonged to you? Of course, you would! Who wouldn't? After all, you are the one who created it. And guess what? That money would belong to you thanks to the protections afforded to artists under copyright law.
Copyright law protects the creators of "original works of authorship," which is a broad category that covers many different forms of artistry, including poems, stories, books, songs, paintings, sculptures, dances, and more.
Those drawings you made in art class? That paper you wrote for your English class? That rap you made up with your best friend? Those are all examples of "original works of authorship," and you automatically own the copyright to your creations.
But what exactly does it mean to own the copyright in your original creations? Copyright law gives authors of original works the exclusive right to make or distribute copies of their work or to perform or display their work publicly. Authors also enjoy the exclusive right to make "derivative works," such as adapting a work to another type of media.
Copyright law makes it illegal for others to do these things without an author's permission. Authors regularly grant others permission to do these things, usually in exchange for some type of payment. For example, the author of a book may sell to a movie studio the right to make a movie of his or her book.
There are a few exceptions to and limitations upon copyright law. The primary limitation is a doctrine known as "fair use." Fair use allows copying of copyrighted material as long as it is done for a limited and "transformative" purpose. This usually takes the form of commenting upon, criticizing, or parodying an artistic work. Fair use usually arises as a defense to a copyright claim, and courts must balance many factors when deciding whether a particular use was fair use or not.
Unlike a patent, which is an intellectual property protection that an inventor must file for, copyright protection attaches automatically to a creative work as soon as it is put into tangible form. That means as soon as ink hits paper, paint hits canvas, or words are typed into a word processor, copyright protection exists. In other words, a patent protects an idea, whereas copyright protects the expression of that idea.
Does a creator of an original work enjoy copyright protection forever? Not quite! In most instances, copyright protection exists for the life of the creator, plus 70 years. After that time, the work passes into the public domain and can be freely used by anyone. Examples of works that are now in the public domain include Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and the "Happy Birthday" song.