What is Copyright?

Another installment of History in 5-or-so Minutes, this one also for my Creative Commons class, about copyrights. what they are, when they were first used, how theyre used today:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

And here’s the text, in case you want to follow along:

Copyright was first enacted in 1710 by the British Parliament in an act called the Statute of Anne, which begins:

Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books; May it please Your Majesty, that it may be Enacted …

Queen Anne was the sister of Queen Mary, the daughter of James II who was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Mary and her husband William of Orange took the throne, and after they were both dead in 1702 she took the throne. She ruled for twelve years, and then the throne passed to her second cousin George I, the 54-year old German ruler of the duchy of Hanover. Anne had 50 closer relatives, but they were all Catholics.

The Statute of Anne specified a copyright period of 14 years and allowed copyrights to be renewed for a similar term. The statute also for the first time vested the copyright in authors rather than publishers, which was an important change.

Any creative works or performances can be covered by copyright, as soon as they are performed or recorded. The ideas in a work are not protected; there are other forms such as trademarks for commercial expression and patents for inventions that cover ideas their creators wish to protect as intellectual property. In the US and under the Berne Convention, copyright begins as soon as a person creates the work and does not need to be applied for. However, registered copyrights can be easier to protect, since the registration established a paper trail or what might be called a chain of custody.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is an international agreement established in 1886 and originally signed by 10 nations. Currently, 176 states are parties to the convention. Some of its minimum standards are that the term of copyright must be at least the author’s life plus 50 years, and that copyright must be automatic and formal registration is not required. The US did not sign on until 1989, partly because the convention nullified America’s requirements of copyright registration and mandatory copyright notice.

Under the Berne Convention, a person receives copyright as soon as she creates a work in a recorded form or a performance. This is unlike other forms of intellectual property like inventions, which must be protected by filing for a patent. At the end of the copyright period, the work enters the public domain and becomes available for free use, copying, and modification. Works that are made using the public domain material are then covered by copyright, but the copyright does not extend to the public domain elements incorporated in the work.

Copyright exceptions and limitations are designed to safeguard the public by allowing people to use excerpts of works for the purposes of scholarship, review, and commentary. Works that couldn’t be quoted couldn’t be reviewed or discussed in public fora. Similarly, educators are allowed to use works in classroom settings under “fair use” provisions, without permission or payment. Also, once a single copy of a work (say, a book) has been sold, it can be resold, donated, loaned, or otherwise passed on to anyone without additional permission or payment to the copyright holder. This is what allows libraries to loan out books. The advent of ebooks has muddied these waters somewhat, since technology has to be developed to prevent the loaned copies from being kept, which would be copying rather than lending and would violate copyright. Many of the digital rights management systems people have implemented to deal with these issues are controversial and have been criticized by advocates of information sharing.

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