Copyright basics

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship. In today’s global digital economy, artists, authors, and companies have unprecedented opportunities to disseminate their creative works and products to a worldwide audience. They also face daunting challenges from infringement and piracy. To take advantage of these opportunities and to respond to the challenges, creators and creative industries depend more than ever on their ability to protect and enforce their copyrights.

In order to understand the importance of copyright and how to protect it, it is important to examine the basics of copyright law: what it is, what it protects, and how to secure it. The primary purpose behind copyright law is to foster the creation and dissemination of works for the benefit of the public. By granting authors the exclusive right to authorize certain uses of their works, copyright provides economic incentives to create new works and to make them available in the marketplace.

This overarching goal is stated in the U.S. Constitution, Article I section 8, clause 8, “The Congress shall have Power ... 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.”

This language gives Congress broad authority to advance knowledge (“Science” in 18th century parlance) by providing authors with certain exclusive rights over their works for limited times.

The framers of the Constitution were convinced that the dissemination of knowledge was of critical importance to the new nation and that establishing a national copyright system was an efficient means to advance that goal.

More than 200 years later, the purpose of U.S. copyright law remains fundamentally the same: to provide the economic incentives for creativity that ultimately promote the public welfare. The Supreme Court put it this way in its 1975 decision in Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken: “The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an ‘author’s’ creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good” [Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975)].

Copyright protects markets for American creative works not only in the United States, but also internationally. The United States is a party to several international agreements establishing minimum standards of copyright protection that member countries must adopt. These agreements—which include the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty, the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty, and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)—help to ensure that American creators have adequate legal protections against infringement of their works in foreign countries.


U.S. Copyright Office

The United States Copyright Office registers copyright claims, records information about copyright ownership, provides information to the public about copyright, and assists Congress and other parts of the government on a wide range of copyright issues. is a one-stop shop for U.S. government tools and resources on intellectual property rights, including copyright. The federal agencies behind have developed a number of resources to educate and assist businesses—particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as consumers, government officials, and the general public—on how to protect and enforce their intellectual property rights. Visit to learn more.