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Copyright is a legal right given to an author, artist, composer, or programmer, to exclude others from publishing or copying literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, or software works. A copyright covers only the author’s or artist’s particular way of expressing an idea. While a copyright can provide offensive rights on the particular arrangement of words that constitute a book or play, it can’t cover the book’s subject matter, message, or teachings. For example, you are free to publish any of the ideas, concepts, and information in this (or any) book, provided that you use your own words. But if you copy the specific wording, then you have infringed the copyright on this book.

To obtain a copyright, a work must be “original,” not merely the result of extended effort. For example, a telephone company that compiled, through much work, an alphabetical directory of names and addresses could not prevent another publisher from copying the directory, because it had no originality. Certain items, such as a title, short phrase, lettering, an idea, a plan, a form, a system, a method, a process, a concept, a principle, and a device can’t be covered through copyright. U.S. government publications, by law, aren’t covered by copyright and may almost always be freely copied and sold by anyone, if desired. Copyright can’t be used for a utilitarian article, unless it has an aesthetic feature that can be separated from and can exist independently of the article (known as the “separability requirement”). For example, copyright cannot protect a belt buckle but can protect a design that is affixed to the buckle.

In this section information is provided about acquiring and maintaining copyright and how copyright is distinguished from patents.