Copyright is the concept — and in most modern countries, the law — that when someone creates a text, piece of music, or other creative endeavor, they initially own the rights to any revenues derived therefrom. They are intended to expire eventually so that the public may make free use of them, though historically copyright terms have often been extended when major works were to fall out of copyright. Still, God's copyrights on the universe, and even on earth, have expired everywhere. Feel free to make copies at will. It is rumoured that God still holds patents on life, although this is yet to be tested in a court of law.
In the practice of law, trademark and copyright enforcement are referred to as "soft intellectual property litigation," since they tend to implicate only legal knowledge and humanities-based skills. This "soft" distinction is constructed in opposition to patent litigation, which often requires scientific knowledge, even from lawyers.
Duration of copyrights
The duration of copyright protection varies, depending on the country and the nature of the work, but it's reasonable to assume that copyright will protect a work long after the death of its author. This is an odd change in the intent of copyright law, since it was originally devised to allow authors a set period of time in which they exclusively can profit from their work. British copyright law began in 1710  and U.S copyright law in 1790. The American Copyright law provided fourteen years of protection that could be extended for a further fourteen years. (The British law gave the first fourteen years copyright to the publisher of the work and gave an additional seven to the author to a total of twenty-one years)
Current copyright law for written works in the U.S. last until the author's death, plus seventy years (or a fixed 95 years from publication[note 1] if the author is an artificial person such as a corporation or the work is the result of a collaborative effort). The current term was adopted so that it would be equal to the European Union's, which in turn (as the European Communities) adopted such a larger term in 1993 in order to make it both equal in all its member states (of these, Germany adopted it first in 1965!) and so the copyright's protection would effectively protect both the author and the first two generations of his/her descendents..
In fact the United States was late to arrive to a "life plus x years"-style copyright term and was outside international norms for most of its history. The first of those terms was France's 1793 life-plus-10-years term (passed by a parliament which had as a member, among others, Thomas Paine); they were followed by England, who first extended it to life of the author or 28 years (whichever was longer) in 1814 and then, in 1842, to life-plus-7-years or 42 years (whichever was longer). By the end of the 19th century, several countries (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Venezuela, Chile and Brazil) had such a term - at the turn of the century, this group of countries was more than half of the 37 countries which had copyright law -, and in some (Mexico and, for a while, Sweden), it was actually perpetual.
The first U.S. attempt at a "life plus x years" copyright was in 1906 (with the x equalling 50) and later, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1930 and 1940 (with the x remaining the same).
By the 1950s the U.S. was alone with the Philippines in not having such a term. In 1955 Congress started a large-scale revision of copyright law, which by 1965 already had a proposal for life plus 50 years but other disputes unrelated to terms delayed its approval, and by 1976 (going into effect in 1978) such a copyright term was now law. (Meanwhile, there were 9 interim extensions, still not in the "life plus x years" form, so copyright holders would not lose their rights.) Then in 1997 Congress extended it to life plus 70 years and the attended whining about Disney and copyright terms (debunked at Walt Disney § Copyright extension myth (and the reality)) began.
What does copyright law protect?
Copyright law is about protecting application, use or promulgation of one's "intellectual property". It applies to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete and fixed in a medium. The novel The Return of The King is protected by copyright, but this would not prevent someone from writing an oddly similar story, so long as it's not a case of lifting characters and/or locations from the original novel. Some elements of published works may also be protected by trademark law, making it illegal to write a novel featuring a heavy breathing character named Darth Vader. Publishers and authors vary in their acceptance of derivative works, such as fan fiction, but it's reasonable to assume that
Lucasfilm Disney would frown upon the creation of a pornographic story featuring Darth Vader screwing an ewok.
Although some people seem unwilling to admit this, copyright law normally provides fair use exclusions. These would typically allow an author to quote from works (ranging from books to email messages) for specific purposes, such as criticism. Some organizations and individuals use authors' lack of legal knowledge to bully them in to removing content from websites. This is called a Chilling Effect by the courts, as it is an attempt to chill the free speech/free press rights of the bullied party. The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse maintains a record of cease and desist letters sent for this purpose.
The Swedish-based Pirate Bay Bittorrent tracker site delivered a particularly amusing response to the DreamWorks film studio, when they said "It is the opinion of us and our lawyers that you are morons and that you should sodomise yourself with retractable batons.".
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act introduced pretty harsh punishments for copyright violation, and a mechanism by which authors can make a formal take-down request. VenomFangX, a popular YouTube creationist, was accused of fraudulently filing such requests, as were the Discovery Institute - probably forgetting that false claims are a federal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Surely these well documented claims of wrongdoing are untrue, despite the evidence for them. Good Christians of their caliber would surely not lie and subvert the legal system in order to suppress dissenting views.
How is a work protected by copyright?
The Bern Convention requires that all copyrightable works be automatically protected by copyright law. This is an almost worldwide agreement, with very few countries yet to sign. There is no requirement to label a work as being protected by copyright, nor is there a need to legally register its existence, but both steps are a sensible precaution for works of substantial worth. Some people have suggested that authors post themselves a copy of their work, leaving the envelope/package sealed, in order to prove that the work existed at the date shown by the postmark - this is known as "poor man's copyright". This is not guaranteed to be considered by a court of law, so a conversation with a lawyer would seem the safer option.
Does copyright feed starving artists?
While authors do normally benefit from the commercialization of their works, creative artists usually, in their struggle to maintain the mind-body connection, often sign away most of these rights in the hope of getting paid at some point, after whomever they sign them away to makes enough money. This is worth remembering when record labels complain that piracy is taking money away from artists. In reality, most artists earn a tiny percentage (if anything) from the sales of their works. Many end up owing money to their record company for real or imagined "expenses" incurred in producing their material.
Something similar happens to anyone attempting to publish fiction or poetry, as the publisher gives the creator a fee and then claims copyright on the material; in this case, piracy would only harm the creator if it caused the publisher to go bankrupt before the the money is transferred to the creator.
Or in other words, piracy doesn't starve artists, but the companies that leech off their creativity. It would starve artists who self-publish, but these types rarely have millions to spend on televised PSAs.
- Digital rights management
- Walt Disney
- Fair use
- RationalWiki's copyright battle against Andrew Schlafly
- Citizen Media Law Project
- The Problem With Music An eye-opening look at the finances of the music industry, from Steve Albini (recording engineer for Nirvana, Robert Plant, PJ Harvey, and dozens of others).
- A description of some of the perceived problems with U.S. copyright law, explained in comic book form
- Creative Commons Non-profit that has created copyright licenses allowing moderated sharing of copyrighted material with the creator's consent.
- A well-argued article for why copyright infringement indeed is theft, from a legal standpoint.
- Copyright rules by territory overview from Wikimedia Commons Because copyright terms are different around the world.
- Or 120 years from a work's creation, whichever term is shorter. As few works are published more than 25 years after their creation, the "publication date + 95 years" tends to be the shorter term of the two.
- United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, clause 8. ... "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
- Original U.S. Copyright law of 1790
- Terry Hart (July 15, 2014), "A Brief History of US Copyright Term" (Copyhype).
- Chilling Effects Clearinghouse and the whacky letters that people send
- Pirate Bay owners pledge to fight again after court jails them for copyright theft
- DonExodus2 of YouTube documents lies, damn lies and creationists