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A Copyright provides to the author of a creative work (originally books, but now many other creations such as movies, recorded music, and drawings) the right to control the reproduction of the work for a set period of time. This usually includes the exclusive right to make and sell copies of the work, to make derivative works, and to publicly perform the work; or to license those rights. In contrast to a patent which grants a monopoly right to the use of an invention, a copyright covers only a specific work of creative expression. Copyrights may be bought, sold or licensed in the same way as other forms of intellectual property. They are enforced by the owner in a civil law court.

In general, the owner of a physical copy of a copyrighted work (book, CD etc) can do what they please with the copy, even without owning the copyright, so long as they do not produce additional copies or modified works; but there are exceptions: public performances (which are considered a form of copy) or electronic copy. In the US this is known as the First Sale Doctrine, and was established in the US court system to clarify the legality of reselling books in used book stores.

Not all copying is restricted; the fair use doctrine allows limited copying of portions of a copyrighted work, e.g. for criticism, satire or educational purposes.

Many European countries provide for moral rights, which are rights in addition to copyright possessed by an author, such as the right to have their work acknowledged and not be disparaged. While copyright is normally assigned or licensed to the publisher, authors generally retain their moral rights.

Some European countries also provide for artist resale rights, which mean that artists are entitled to a portion of the appreciation of the value of their work each time it is sold.

While governments had previously granted monopoly rights to publishers to sell printed works, the modern concept of copyright originated in 1710 with the British Statute of Anne. This statute first recognized that authors, rather than publishers, should be the primary beneficiary of such laws, and it included protections for consumers of printed work ensuring that publishers could not control their use after sale. It also limited the duration of such exclusive rights to 28 years, after which all works would pass into the public domain.

The Berne Convention of 1886 first established the recognition of copyrights between sovereign nations. (Copyright protection was also provided by the Universal Copyright Convention of 1952, but that convention is today is largely of historical interest.) Under the Berne convention, copyright is granted automatically to creative works; an author does not have to "register" or "apply for" copyright protection. As soon as the work is "fixed", that is, written or recorded on some physical medium, its author is automatically granted all exclusive rights to the work and any derivative works unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them, or until the copyright expires.

Copyright law varies from country to country. For information on specific national copyright laws, see:

International treaties concerning copyright