When an artist, architect, author, or other creative person develops an original work, he or she holds the copyright to it, that is, the right to benefit financially from the work and/or to reproduce it for sale or broadcast or to make derivative works from the original. The term applies equally to published work, music, designs, photographs, films, and other forms of original creativity.
Copyright infringement, which is a form of theft, is also known as piracy, bootlegging, and plagiarism. Items that cannot be copyrighted include familiar phrases, names, symbols, or slogans.
Prior to 1989 creators were required to apply for copyright, but since then the process has been modified to allow automatic copyright on original works. The term on copyrighted material has also been increased substantially by law, from the original 14 year period (renewable for a second 14 years) to life of the author plus 70 years, or more than 125 years for corporate work.
The concept of copyright goes back to 1700s in England when the Royal Stationer was given exclusive right to publish as well as authority to legally pursue those who usurped that market. The first copyright decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court was in 1834 – in a case that applied to copies of the Supreme Court's own decisions. In the suit, the man who had the job of reporting Supreme Court decisions was undercut by another man who conceived of a different format and cheaper price point for publishing and selling a guide to the decisions. The court determined that the original reporter had not copyrighted his works and therefore his case was invalid. Both men died while the case was in appeal but the defendant's estate ultimately paid the original reporter's family $400.
A modern coup in copyright was the singer Michael Jackson's purchase of the music company ATV in 1985. Jackson was just hitting his stride as one of the world's most popular and well-paid entertainers. An advisor suggested he start investing in copyrights to music, which caught his attention. When he learned that the owner of the copyrights to most of the Beatles music catalogue was interested in selling, he jumped at the opportunity, purchasing ATV for around $50 million. The investment ensured a steady return for the remainder of Jackson's life and for his heirs, particularly when the company merged with Sony.
The proliferation of copyright infringement issues multiplied with the advent of the internet and digital sound, recordings, and films. Now people can "rip" a copyrighted movie or music and send it around the world in minutes, essentially stripping it of any copyright protection. The current musical trend of "sampling" also magnified the issue as musicians began borrowing familiar chords from older works. Many suits have been filed charging infringement due to identifiable note sequences popping up on new works. The benchmark suit on this topic was Grand Upright Music Ltd. Vs. Warner Bros. in federal court in New York in 1991, which stopped rap musicians in particular from incorporating into new work the previously recorded music of other musicians without permission.
Electronic theft has been addressed by the courts several times, starting with a Massachusetts District Court (federal) case in 1994 referred to as LaMacchia, with the court deciding that no copyright infringement can take place if no profit is made from the result. Soon afterward a 1997 law was enacted, called the No Electronic Theft Act, elevating electronic piracy – even in the absence of a profit motive – to felony theft level, with penalties of up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines.
The music sharing site Napster was one of the first to test copyright laws in the digital age. In 1999 a college freshman created Napster, allowing a group of users to share digital music files. In part, Napster's defense argued that it was an early peer-to-peer networking group and did not benefit financially from the music, also that copyright did not extend to the MP3 digital format. The court ruled against Napster, but similar suits have cropped up as technology advances, including the Grokster case that went before the Supreme Court.
A strange twist on copyright is the right to parody material. Performer Weird Al Yankovic has made a career of this, turning out several Billboard hits that are unusual takes on popular tunes. Key to Yankovic's success is seeking permission from the original musician before releasing a parody. Disc jockey Rich Dees faced a copyright infringement suit in 1986 when he sampled 29 seconds of a song and rewrote lyrics to make it a parody. The original musician sued, claiming infringement but the court determined that there was no adverse economic effect of Dees's recording, nor was it obscene or indecent.