Recent contraversy about book "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" by Kaavya Viswanathan, made me think that many young people (especially young students in India) may not have clear knowledge about Copyrights. No, I am not implying that Kaavya Viswanathan did not know about Copyrights. The book contraversy is not the topic of this post.
From my experiences, students do create and submit project lot of reports, articles, poems, cartoons during their college days. Manytimes, they obtain work created by others from internet, books etc. and use in their work, which is perfectly fine as long as one mentions the reference and not claim the work as his/her own.
My effort is to help them avoid plagiarism (claiming someone else's work as your own, intentionly or otherwise).
Q. What is Copyrights and Why should I care?
You must have seen copyright notices on books. Something like (C) All rights reserved.
Copyrights give you certain rights to decide how your work should be used by others. Its relevant if your work is original and has commercial value. This includes books, articles, poems, software source code etc. work which exists in some forms. This will prevent somebody using your work for commercial gains without consulting/paying you.
Q. What can be protected by Copyrights?
Your expressions is some form can be copyrights, not underlying ideas. For example you can Copyright your particular poem (written on paper/on computer)about a train telling her emotions, but not idea that machines can express their emotions.
for more information. I quote paragraph relevant to above question.
"Facts are not protected even if the author spends considerable time and effort discovering things that were previously unknown. For example, the author of the book on Neanderthals takes ten years to gather all the necessary materials and information for her work. At great expense, she travels to hundreds of museums and excavations around the world. But after the book is published, any reader is free to use the results of this ten year research project to write his or her own book on Neanderthals -- without paying the original author."
Important point is it also means that you cannot publish somebody else's work, claiming it to be your's. It not legal in India and may other countries. However fair use of the other's work is allowed.
I hope this makes you aware of basics of Copyrights. Do your own research for more information on fair use, patents, and related topics.
Some more useful links.
Myths about copyright explained http://www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html