As early as the eighteenth century, people were concerned with the rights granted to original works of art, like songs, novels or poems. The ability for the creator of these original works to make money relies upon control of the distribution. The extent of the rights of reproduction, distribution, and adaptation granted to an original work is known as copyright ownership.
A copyright establishes the exclusive ownership of the right to reproduce, distribute or adapt original artistic and literary works, and assigns that ownership to one or more parties. A copyright is similar to a patent in that they both establish ownership; however, a patent applies to an invention. A trademark is yet another classification of ownership recognized by the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). None of these protect ideas; only the physical manifestation of them.
The laws of copyright ownership vary across the globe, but concerted efforts have been made to establish uniform international laws of governance. In 1886, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works was an attempt to establish universal guidelines among Convention members which would cross international borders. The basic premise of the Berne statutes requires that a country honor works originating outside their border to grant them the same rights as those of the respective country’s own citizens. The findings have been amended in the subsequent hundred-plus years since the Convention, but still serve as a guiding light in matters of international copyright ownership disputes.
US copyright law is established by the PTO, and early mention of copyright law is within the US Constitution. Copyright ownership can apply to two or more parties, for example a composer and a singer. A copyright can also be owned by a corporation, and ownership of copyrights can be transferred to another party via legal process. In the case of the death of the creator of the copyrighted work, a will or other due process can transfer copyright ownership as well.
The duration of copyright ownership is not forever. Copyrights expire, though the rules governing the duration period vary among different countries. The expiration of copyright ownership under US law, is typically 70 years after the death of the author or authors. There are some variations on these rules based on the type of work and the date it was created.
Public domain refers to works that are not protected by any international copyright laws. An author may not claim the copyright ownership, or the rights may simply have expired. For example, neither the Bible nor the writings of Shakespeare can be subject to any international copyright laws.