The Exclusive Rights of Copyright

“James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress, located in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. The fourth floor has the United States Copyright Office.” CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia

Prior to passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, a copyright owner who licensed her work for any purpose had to transfer the entire copyright to the buyer; she could not license only selected rights. The “indivisibility” of copyright led to unfair results for creators. For example, if a writer sold the right to publish a story to a magazine, the magazine legally became owner of the entire copyright exclusively. If a motion picture studio wanted to purchase the rights to the story, it did so from the magazine publisher; the writer was cut out. The 1976 Act addressed this injustice by making copyright divisible into specific exclusive rights and the exclusive rights of copyright subdivisible.

The Act gives the owner of a copyright the exclusive rights to exploit the work’s value by doing, or authorizing others to do, any of the following: reproduce the work, sell and distribute copies, perform the work publicly, display the work publicly, and prepare derivative works. Copyright is now often described as a bundle of rights, each of which may be licensed separately, exclusively or nonexclusively, by the owner.

In order to best capitalize on the value of your work, you should know how to subdivide the rights you grant to publishers and other parties. Appropriately limiting rights you license can allow you to earn more from your work by granting others the rights to make secondary uses. For example, freelance writers typically license certain rights to publish their stories to periodicals and retain other rights. The writer may subdivide the exclusive publication rights by territory, such as “first North American serial rights,” divide them further, for example granting “English-language first North American serial rights” (note that “first publication” rights are exclusive rights), or divide them into nonexclusive rights. All other rights are reserved to the writer.

This information has been adapted from the 4th edition of The Writer’s Legal Guide by Kay Murray and myself.

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