A copyright is literally the right to make copies, and there is a long history to copyright going back to the development of printing presses in Europe. In US Law the concept of protecting artists, authors and/or inventors exclusive right to benefit from their work comes directly from Article I, Section 8 of theUnited States Constitution:
"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"
The specific details of how the government protects an individual's copyrights are enumerated in Title 17 of the United States Code. As you can image the development of the internet has made enforcing copyright laws in the United States, as well as throughout the world, a bit more challenging. The ease with which a person can make digital copies of items from the internet without any regard for national boundaries or consent from the author has made enforcing these laws almost impossible.
Here's an example. Do you like my picture on the right? Go ahead, right click on it, choose copy from the menu that appears. Then paste it into a Word Document. Now save it to your computer and print a copy for yourself. Did you just make, not just one, but two illegal copies of my original copyright protected art work? You saved a copy to your computer and then you printed a copy. Two illegal copies right? Well, technically yes, but here's something to consider: Have I actually been damaged by the copies you just made? Or even more specifically, could I prove in court that you just damaged me commercially by making copies of my little picture? And what if you're in Thailand or Guatemala or Australia right now? How do I go about protecting my copyrights in your country? This can get real tricky, real fast.
Then there's the concept of Fair Use which suggests that academics and others should be able to use portions of copyrighted work for educational purposes or to critique it. The controversy here involves things like: how much of the work can be used, who are these academics and others and what if the copyright owner has an issue with the use?
Rather than trying to explain copyright laws any further we'd simply like to recommend some websites for further study. The purpose of this technology tip was simply to remind you of the ongoing controversy of protecting copyrights in the digital age. You are encouraged to research for more details that are relevant to you using these links:
The United States Copyright Office
Start with the officials if you want the official word.
Also check out their Copyright Internet Resources
Copyright With Cyberbee
This clever site has an interactive question and answer format. Good for all ages but especially for younger students. Give it a try, you're bound to learn something.
A website by the non-profit Copyright Society of the USA which is geared to middle school aged students and their teachers.
10 Big Myths about Copyright Explained
An oldie but a goody. This essay by Brad Templeton is often cited to help people understand copyright laws in the digital age. Though originally posted online in 1994 it was updated in 2008.
International Copyright Resources
MegaLaw.com has a pretty extensive links page that offers links to copyright laws from all over the world.