Copyrights protect the expression of an idea in a fixed medium. A copyright provides the copyright owner with the right to prevent others from copying the copyrighted work. Copyrightable works include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, performances, graphical works, motion pictures and sound recordings.

Copyright protection lasts for a limited duration. A work that is created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after Jan. 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death. In the case of "a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire," the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author's death. For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author's identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Works that were created, but not published, prior to that date are also given the same term. Works that were created and published prior to Jan. 1, 1978, have a shorter term.

Copyrights are governed by federal substantive law. Copyrights may be registered at the United States Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. Registration is a prerequisite for filing a copyright-infringement lawsuit. Registration is unnecessary unless a party intends to file a lawsuit enforcing the copyright. Copyright protection arises as soon as a work is fixed in a tangible medium. For works that were created after March 1, 1989, copyright protection arises upon creation of the work. There is no need to attach a copyright notice to such works.