A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection that is afforded to “works of authorship.” A copyright can protect a character, story, song, artwork, or other form of media or expression. If something is copyrighted then it cannot be replicated without permission and compensation of the copyright owner.
Originally, something had to be marked with a copyright in order to be considered protected. In the modern age, however, a work is automatically protected as soon as it is created. This does not mean that there is no point in formally registering a copyright with the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, but it does mean that people can no longer lose the opportunity to copyright their works through forgetfulness.
A copyright gives limited protections against unauthorized use of the copyrighted material. This generally means that other people cannot use the copyrighted material to try to sell or otherwise profit from it. While copyright protects most items, there are still some authorized uses of copyrighted material under the tenants of fair use.
Different copyrights last for different periods of time. International copyright is governed by the Berne Convention and lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years. U.S. copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, with joint authors beginning the 70 year timer after the last author’s death. Anonymous works are copyrighted for 95 years from the time of first publication.
If a copyright holder believes that their copyright has been violated, they may file a legal claim of copyright infringement. If the work is found to be a violation of copyright, then the courts can order that the infringing property be removed from circulation and future profits from the infringing work may be passed on to the copyright holder.