The difference between patents and copyrights is the nature of what they protect. A patent is used for things and processes that are useful, whereas a copyright is used to protect expressive art such as novels, fine and graphic art, music, photography, software, video, cinema and choreography. A copyright is used to prevent an artist from stealing or using another artist’s work.
Copyrights preserve the artist’s right to control how their work is used, including: reproduction rights, distribution rights, the right to create adaptations, performance and display rights.
The author must be the only one to exercise copyright rights unless the rights were transferred to another person or entity. If the wrong person uses the material, the copyright owner will be able to sue and obtain compensation.
For any work published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the work is commissioned, created during employment or from an anonymous author, the copyright will last between 95 and 120 years. In the United-States, all works published before 1923 are considered public domain and can be used by all without being protected by copyright. Works published between 1923 and 1977 are covered by a 95 year copyright law, from the date of publication.
In order to qualify for copyright rights the work must satisfy a list of characteristics. It must be a tangible medium of expression, i.e. a physical form for at least a little bit, even briefly. Keep in mind that work saved on a computer is considered tangible. Therefore, copyrights cannot protect an idea. On the same note, copyrights cannot protect facts either: scientific or historical for example. Indeed, facts are considered part of the public domain and must be accessible to all.
The work must also be original and not a copy, regardless if it has some similarities with existing work or even if some consider that the work is lacking ingenuity, aesthetic merit or quality. Finally the work must be the consequence of creative work from the author even though It seems a little complicated to gauge how much work is enough.
They are a few exceptions in which the author does not own the copyright rights.
When the artist created the work while employed or if the work was “made for hire” then the copyright rights will belong either to the employer or the hiring person or firm. Work made for hire can be part of a larger literary work, part of a motion picture or a screenplay, a translation, an atlas, etc.
There can also be two joint owners for the same work, in the case of two authors for the same book for example.
The author can also decide to sell the copyright of his work, which will then become the property of the buyer.
The owner may also transfer the copyright to a third party via assignment or license; mortgage or security; transfer upon death or involuntary transfer in case of bankruptcy for example. Usually, in case of a transfer, the rights attached to the copyright will be slightly limited to a certain time period, to a certain part of the world, etc.
The owner or its heirs can terminate any copyright transfer after 35 to 40 years.