This article is from the Copyright Law FAQ, by Terry Carroll with numerous contributions by others.
A copyright is a right of intellectual property, whereby authors obtain,
for a limited time, certain exclusive rights to their works. In the
United States, copyright is exclusively federal law, and derives from the
"copyright clause" of the Constitution (Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 8), which
provides Congress with the power "to promote science and the useful arts,
by securing for limited times to authors ... the exclusive right to their
Copyright protects only an author's original expression. It doesn't
extend to any ideas, system or factual information that is conveyed in a
copyrighted work, and it doesn't extend to any pre-existing material that
the author has incorporated into a work. 17 U.S.C. 102(b), 103.
The standard for originality is very low. "Original" in this context
means only that the work has its origin in the author. There is no
requirement that the work be different from everything that has come
before: it need only embody a minimum level of creativity and owe its
origin to the author claiming copyright. To use an extreme example, if
two poets, each working in total isolation and unaware of one another's
work, were to compose identical poems, both of the poems would meet the
originality requirement for purposes of the copyright statute. Feist
Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Company, Inc., 111 S.Ct.
1282, 1287-88 (1991).
In the United States, these seven rights are recognized:
1) the reproductive right: the right to reproduce the work in
2) the adaptative right: the right to produce derivative works
based on the copyrighted work;
3) the distribution right: the right to distribute copies of
4) the performance right: the right to perform the copyrighted
5) the display right: the right to display the copyrighted work
6) 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;
7) 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.
17 U.S.C. 106, 106A.
Not all of these rights apply to all types of works. For example, the
display right applies to literary, musical, dramatic and choreographic
works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works. It
does not apply to sound recordings and to architectural works. The
attribution right and the integrity right apply only to works of visual
Also, not all rights have the same duration: in the U.S., rights 1-5
normally have a duration of the author's life plus 50 years, while rights
6-7 endure only for the life of the author.
These rights are not unbounded, and in the U.S., sections 107 through 120
of the copyright law catalog a series of restrictions on the rights.
Some of these restrictions are discussed elsewhere in the FAQ (see, e.g.,
sections 2.8, 2.9, and 3.7).
And, by the way, many persons erroneously spell it "copywrite,"
apparently because of the association with written material. The correct
word is "copyright." It derives from an author or publisher's right to
the copy (copy here being used in the sense that it is used in the
newspaper trade: the text of an article).