Copyright exists as an incentive for authors to create works, which can then be used by the general public. Theoretically its main purpose is to promote learning. Authors can be compensated for their work and society is enhanced by having access to this work. Copyright law theoretically balances the rights of the author with those of the public.
Copyright is really a bundle of rights, the basic one being the right to prevent others from copying one's creative work, for example, a book or painting.
In the UK, according to the Intellectual Property Office, ‘Copyright gives rights to the creators of certain kinds of material to control the various ways in which their material may be exploited. The rights broadly cover: copying; adapting; issuing; renting and lending copies to the public; performing in public; and broadcasting. In many cases, the author will also have the right to be identified on his or her work and to object to distortions and mutilations of his work.’ These last two rights are sometimes called ‘moral rights’.
In the United States, according to Terry Carroll's Copyright FAQ, copyright covers:
the reproductive right: the right to reproduce the work in copies;
the adaptative right: the right to produce derivative works based on the copyrighted work;
the distribution right: the right to distribute copies of the work;
the performance right: the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
the display right: the right to display the copyrighted work publicly;
the attribution right (sometimes called the paternity right): the right of the author to claim authorship of the work and to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of a work he or she did not create;
the integrity right: the right of an author to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of a distorted version of the work, to prevent intentional distortion of the work and to prevent destruction of the work.
Source: 17 U.S.C. 106, 106A
We can see that the UK rights broadly coincide with those in the US, although in the UK or European context the moral rights are slightly broader than the attribution and integrity rights (6 and 7 above) in the US. ‘Moral rights’ are historically concerned with protecting the reputation of authors. In the US, ‘moral rights’ receive little protection in practice.
The rights exist for a limited time. The simple question ‘How long does a copyright last?’ turns out to have a surprisingly complicated answer. The length of time depends on the type of copyrighted work, the type of copyright holder, the jurisdiction and the date the work was created or published. In the case of literary or artistic work the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. In the US, where the copyright is in a ‘work made for hire’ and held by a company it now lasts 95 years from the date it was first published.
Sound recordings are protected for 50 years in the UK and a number of other EU countries, though not all. There are currently moves to harmonise this to the longer US term. There have been eleven extensions to the term of copyright in the US since 1962 and many changes to legislation in other jurisdictions in relation to copyright terms, so the creation or publication date is also a complicating factor.
The good news is that you don't need to remember all this. If you're looking for a rule of thumb, think of ‘life plus seventy’, but if you really want to know for sure about a specific case, the best bet is to check with an authoritative source, such as the Patent Office in the relevant jurisdiction.
What exactly does copyright cover? The UK Intellectual Property Office again:
The type of works that copyright protects are:
original literary works, e.g. novels, instruction manuals, computer programs, lyrics for songs, articles in newspapers, some types of databases, but not names or titles (see Trade Marks pages);
original dramatic works, including works of dance or mime; original musical works;
original artistic works, e.g. paintings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, collages, works of architecture, technical drawings, diagrams, maps, logos;
published editions of works, i.e. the typographical arrangement of a publication;
sound recordings, which may be recordings on any medium, e.g. tape or compact disc, and may be recordings of other copyright works, e.g. musical or literary;
films, including videos; and broadcasts and cable programmes.
You do not have to remember all these rights or this list of things that copyright covers in the UK.
Copyright does apply to the internet, despite the commonly held belief to the contrary. Copyright does not protect ideas – it protects the way the idea is expressed, but not the idea itself. For example, suppose someone wrote an article about painting a wall black, and this had not been thought of before. The article would be copyrighted, but nobody would be prevented from using the idea about painting walls black. Another example which may be more familiar is a recipe in a cookbook. It is permitted to follow the recipe to cook the food, but photocopying the recipe is likely to be an infringement of copyright. The US Copyright Office, for example, says: ‘A mere listing of ingredients is not protected under copyright law. However, where a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a collection of recipes as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.’
3.4 An introduction to intellectual property