Copyright law is a balance between two competing interests. On the one hand, it encourages authors and artists to create work; it ensures that they will be able to receive adequate compensation for their efforts. On the other hand, in a free and democratic society, the communication of ideas should be encouraged. Copyright law, therefore, tries to strike a balance between the two interests. The doctrine of fair use serves to balance out the potential monopoly created by copyright law by allowing people to use certain aspects of literary and other works without infringing on the copyright. Fair use will be discussed in detail later in this chapter.
As a basic introduction, copyright gives the owner the right to reproduce the work in any form, to make derivative works based on the original work, and to distribute copies of the work. Usually, the owner of the work is the person who creates the work. As mentioned above, a work can be defined as including many forms of expression. The definition of literary work may include a short story, a novel, a poem, a nonfiction article, a play, a screenplay, or virtually any other form of written communication.
Another qualification of copyright is that the work must be original. Original simply means that the creator expended some effort in creating it. Originality does not require that the work be innovative, just that the creator actually went through the steps of producing it.
There are some things that cannot be copyrighted. Titles, for example, cannot be the object of copyright, but other legal protection may exist for the infringement of titles, such as trademark law. In addition, there is some question as to whether e-mail and newsgroup postings can be the subject of copyright.
The most important aspect of copyright is that it protects only the actual expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Ideas are for the benefit of society, and therefore must be free. For example, Einstein would never have been able to copyright his famous formula. He could have claimed copyright in the words he used to express the idea, but he could never copyright the idea of E = mc2. The only thing that can be protected by copyright is the actual form of expression.
This is inextricably tied to one of the basic qualifications of copyright law: In order to claim copyright in a literary work, it must be fixed. This simply means that the work must be written down. Since the only thing protected is the expression, a thing must actually be expressed in some way before it can be protected.
It used to be that a literary work had to be registered with the copyright office to assert a claim; this is no longer the case, and copyright begins at the moment of fixation. So, as soon as you write something down, or type it into a word-processing document and save it to your hard drive, you are the copyright owner. Copyright law has had to catch up to technology, so it now includes works that aren't actually set out on paper. Computer hard drives are fine, as is a document stored in a personal digital assistant: As long as the work is stored and can be retrieved, it is protected by copyright.