What Is a Copyright?

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A copyright protects the form of expression of a creator against copying. Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works are included within the protection of U.S. copyright law. The USPTO does not register copyrights, the copyright office does.


Copyright protection is given to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available for both published and unpublished works.

The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • Reproduce the work in copies or sound recordings.
  • Make derivative works based on the original.
  • Distribute copies or sound recordings of the original to the public by sales, rentals, leasing, lending or licensing.
  • Perform the original publicly, and that would include the use of digital audio.
  • Display the original publicly.

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the above rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of a copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. One specified exemption from copyright liability is called "fair use". Another exemption is "compulsory license" under which certain limited uses of copyrighted works are permitted upon payment of specified royalties and compliance with statutory conditions.