The earliest form of Copyright possibly dates from China (they developed printing first) relating to the authority (right) to make copies of official documents. The Statute of Anne (1709) was likely the first example of statute law. But ‘what is Copyright’ is not a single answer. It has mutated to cope with new situations.
Copyright was initially all about authors and book publishing. So ‘what is Copyright’ initially meant the right of a printer to make (and sell) copies for a period of time. And this right was exclusive.
You can more or less guess the developments coming. When photography got off the ground (so to speak) things were more complicated. You had a photographer, a subject and the chemist all wanting to get paid. And ‘what is Copyright’ got really complicated when gramophone records started (composer, conductor, players), and later film and television (don’t ask) came along.
Not to be outdone, the lawyers decided that the same old system would be used for computer programs (because it avoided making new law), with loads of authors contributing bits of works, not to mention machines that could generate code or data without human authors, or databases which were somehow different.
So if you wanted to know what is Copyright, it is a way of figuring out how people make a profit from intellectual effort as against selling potatoes, or cars, or land. An economic right, granted by governments, and today, coordinated by the Berne Convention and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
Now if we have established what is Copyright, we can move on to the question of the protection of Copyright. And we can’t do that without thinking about how Copyright is created. And the answer, as always, is – it depends.
In a lot of countries Copyright is created automatically by the act of creation (although in some jurisdictions tests of originality or of the ‘sweat of the brow’ are made). In others you may have to register the work with a statutory authority. Back in the days of Gilbert and Sullivan a stage work gained its Copyright by the first public performance!
And protection of Copyright is rather more of a lottery. There is no statutory protection of Copyright (no public authority will prosecute on your behalf) and it is all down to you to litigate against anyone you think has pirated your work(s). And if the piracy is in another country – then good luck to you. As is usually the case, the law is for the rich and powerful (Solon said, “Laws are like a spider’s web, the small are caught, the great tear it up.).
So protection of Copyright is something that every author/creator has to keep in mind right from the outset. It is no good waiting until Copyright has been broken – you have to act first and maintain your protection over Copyright. Because if you do not, then nobody else will.