In prior posts, I discussed the basic law of trademarks—an important intellectual-property right for identifying and protecting brands.

Copyright is another intellectual-property tool that our Founding Fathers considered so important, they specifically accounted for it in the United States Constitution.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the 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.”

And with that simple clause, U.S. copyright law was born. (Patent law too, but that’s a post for another day.) The purpose of copyright is to encourage the development of arts and other creative works by giving authors and artists the “exclusive right” to the works they create. Songs, books, poetry, paintings, choreography, photographs, and sound recordings are all examples of creative works that the Founding Fathers sought to encourage through copyright protection.

What kinds of works can be copyrighted? The technical answer is “original works of authorship.”

To be “original,” there generally must be some degree of creativity involved, like writing a song or designing a building. Basic facts and ideas are not original, and thus cannot be copyrighted. Basic facts are free for anyone to use. But once facts or ideas are compiled or assembled and fixed in an original, creative way, the resulting work is protected.

Take, for example, a list of the Presidents of the United States. By itself, the list is simply a recitation of basic facts with no element of creativity or originality. A list of Presidents is not protected by copyright. But if an author compiles that list in a creative way, like an illustrated poster, or an educational song for schoolchildren, the resulting work would be creative, and it would be original enough for copyright protection.

A copyright protects (and rewards) the creator of an original work by giving her the “exclusive right” to the work for a fixed period of time. Currently that period is the creator’s life, plus 70 years after death. But Congress has changed this time period many times over the years.

The copyright holder’s “exclusive right” includes the right to reproduce the work, to create derivative works (other works adapted from the original), and to distribute, display, and publicly perform the work. This protection serves to encourage a proliferation of further creative works: if other people cannot reproduce or display a copyrighted work, they then have to create their own creative works to display.

Ultimately we all benefit from the legal protections afforded copyright holders. Creativity is encouraged. And originality is rewarded.