The foundation for copyright protection can be found in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8:
"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries..."
As soon as an artistic work is fixed in a tangible medium, meaning written down, recorded, drawn, etc., the rights holder is guaranteed the exclusive rights to:
- Make derivative works/adaptations
- Display publicly
- Perform publicly
- Digitally transmit
Rights holders are not required to register their works to gain copyright protection. Currently the rights holder retains these rights for their lifetime plus an additional 70 years. After the copyright expires, the works fall in to the Public Domain where anyone can reproduce, perform, or adapt the work. Currently, works from 1924 and earlier are in the public domain.
Bear in mind that these rights can, and often are, sold or transferred, either as a bundle or individually. The original author can be the rights holder, but, in many cases, it is the publisher that holds these rights.
Things like facts, ideas, titles, or government publications are not covered by copyright.