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A copyright is a right to prevent others from making copies of an artistic "Work" (as defined by the Copyright Act) or, having access to such a Work, producing a "substantially similar" Work. Making copies and producing such substantially similar Works are each copying under the Copyright Act.

Copyright originates in the United States Constitution, Article I, 8, Clause 8:

"The Congress shall have the Power ... [t]o promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventor the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Works include any original creation by an author (for writings, including characters, song lyrics, and computer programs) or an artist (including sculptures, paintings, photography, graphics, song tunes, and audio and visual recordings).

A copyright attaches to a Work upon its creation in the U.S.; one who creates a Work gains a right to exclude others from copying that Work. Registration of copyrights in a Work brings other benefits, but creation of a Work is the origin of the copyright in that Work. For further information on the acquisition of copyrights, see CR Acquisition.

Copyrights are to be distinguished from patents, which apply to functional or design aspects of useful products or processes, and also from trademarks, which apply to indicators of the source of goods or services.