Demonstrating ownership of a car or a house may involve producing a title or deed or bill of sale, something tangible which establishes the exclusive rights of the owner. But how does one demonstrate these same ownership rights of poems or photographs or other creative works? The answer is called copyright.
Copyright laws establish exclusive ownership of non-tangible concepts once they are put into tangible form. Once a poem is printed on paper, a photograph developed or a performance filmed, it becomes the property of the creator. In the United States, copyright protection exists from the instant a creative work is recorded in a tangible form. There is no need for an official copyright to be registered in order for the creator to claim his or her rights.
The history of copyright law goes back to the rise of the middle class and the invention of the printing press. Once it became possible for commoners to purchase copies of newsletters or literary works, publishers sought ways to establish ownership of the works themselves. Authors were routinely expected to surrender their own copyright to publishers, who would in theory pay royalties or a profit of the sales. Copyright registration offices were established to handle the legal paperwork, but their jurisdictions were often limited to certain countries or regions. Other publishers were still free to publish manuscripts in other countries and sell them without regard for copyright.
Copyright laws were first established in the United States in 1790, as part of the Constitutional protection for artists and writers. It wasn't until the late 1880s, however, that an international effort was made to unify the copyright laws of participating countries. This was the famous Berne Convention, which was only partially successful at first. The United States, a major contributor of copyrighted works, did not officially sign the Berne Convention agreements until the late 1980s, for example.
Many people are confused about the protections offered by copyright. The current laws do not prevent others from using similar words, images or thoughts in their own works. Individual words and common images cannot be copyrighted. Rather, copyright establishes exclusive rights to the exact form of the creative work, along with any other derivative forms of that work.
The copyright holder is the only person who can legally produce a motion picture from his or her novel, for instance. In order for another person to use a copyrighted work, ownership rights must be transferred, in the same way a car buyer must obtain a legal title. Usually, there is a financial consideration whenever a commercial interest seeks permission to use a work protected by copyright.
Copyright laws have been changing for decades, mostly in favor of the author and his or her estate. Critics of current copyright laws say that the extended lifespan of copyrighted material is designed to prohibit fair use by the public. The first renditions of Disney's Mickey Mouse character, for example, would have passed into public domain years ago if the copyright laws had not been altered. Whether or not these primitive images of Mickey Mouse would be of any commercial value is not the point of the argument.
Copyright laws now protect most creative works for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years or more. Works created before 1 January 1978 are covered by different laws, and may be protected for 75 years or longer. While copyright protection may have saved the author from exploitation in life, it may offer too much protection for estates and companies eager to maintain their incomes from licensing fees and motion picture rights.