Laws controlling the ownership of creative work.
Copyright covers non-physical (intellectual) property such as artwork, writing, photographs, etc. The short summary of copyright law is that the creator of an artistic work usually owns it upon creation (the moment the work becomes embodied in a tangible medium), and can specify how its used.
Physical objects and artistic creations which consist of physical embodiments of intellectual effort differ in many respects. For example, theft of a physical item (eg: a car) deprives the owner of his or her use of the object. But if a book is photocopied the original owner is not deprived in any way of his or her use of the original book.
However, tradition and law in most societies have determined that it is beneficial or just to provide specific legal rights to the creator of an artistic work. For example, one argument (the one driving the US tradition) is that ownership rights provide incentive for creators of artistic work to create more, thereby enriching society. Another example is the concept of artistic moral rights, common in Europe.
For these reasons creators of artistic works are given specific time-limited legal rights of ownership - copyright - over their creation. These rights are extended to the heirs of the creator for a certain number of years following his or her death. When copyright expires (or is specifically renounced) the work is said to move into the public domain, and anybody can make use of it as they wish.
Copyright is a complex field, however. Photographers usually own the copyright to their work upon its creation, but there are many exceptions. For example, work produced as work for hire is owned by an employer or the commissioner of a work. So for more information on copyright consult other online resources such as the Copyright FAQ, or hire a copyright lawyer - this isnt legal advice.
Note that copyright is not to be confused with copywriting. The former has to do with legal rights. The latter is the business of writing advertising material.
cf. fair use, freelance, professional, public domain, rights protected licence, royalty-free, stock agency, stringer, work for hire.
Entry last updated 2002-05-08. Term 281 of 1487.
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