If you’re rolling your eyes at the idea of spending one second immersing yourself in copyright law, take a breath. Copyright–literally “the right to copy”–became an issue within months of Gutenberg firing up his printing press. Violating copyright was a problem in Shakespeare’s day (people bootlegged printed copies of his plays sometimes even before he got to stage them) and it’s a problem today.
The point of copyright is to allow a creator to exploit and profit from a work exclusively for a specified period of time after the public can avail itself to the work without charge or penalty. It’s an essential part of capitalism.
If you’ve ever downloaded music, movies, TV shows, video games or software illegally, chances are you violated someone’s copyright. You’ve broken the law. At the same time, though, there are copyright holders who abuse the law, figuring out ways to keep something from passing into the public domain.
Here’s a good quick history of copyright law.
(Link via Holy Kaw)