What Rights Do I Have Under Copyright Law?

In my last post on copyrights, I talked about what a copyright is. In this post, I’ll be talking about what a copyright does, i.e. what rights a copyright owner has to his or her work. A copyright grants its owner six very specific and exclusive rights:

  1. Right of Reproduction. This was the very first right granted under copyright law, and it’s where copyright gets it name from (the right to copy, a.k.a. the copy right). This right is fairly self-explanatory: the copyright owner is the only one allowed to make copies of the work, or to give permission for others to do so.
  2. Right of Adaption. This is the right to make derivative works, or works that are based on the copyrighted work. If the copyrighted work were a book, some examples of derivative works would be movies, translations, audiobooks, sequels, merchandise, apps…the list is quite extensive, and it can be a big source of revenue for a copyright owner.
  3. Right of Public Distribution. This right is also fairly self-explanatory: the copyright owner is the only one allowed to distribute (i.e. sell) the work, or to give permission for others to do so. This right does have one limitation: once a legitimate copy of the work is sold, the new owner is free to do whatever they want with that copy, including turn around and sell it to someone else. This is called the “first sale doctrine” – the copyright owner only has rights to that first sale, because Congress didn’t want to hinder the secondhand market. The only applies to legitimate (a.k.a. “authorized”) copies; any sale of unauthorized copies is a violation of the distribution right, no matter how many hands it has passed through.
  4. Right of Public Performance. This right is geared more towards plays, movies, dances, music, and other creative works that can be enacted, played or…well…performed in front of an audience. Whether the performance is public depends on if the location is open to the public, or if the audience is a large group “outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances.” (17 U.S.C. 101) There has been some controversy over attempts to use technology to enforce this right, such as Blu-Ray players that will scan the room to determine the number of people watching. If too many people are in the room, the Blu-Ray player will not play the movie, because it would be considered a public performance. If you ever had this happen to you, you now know the reason why…though that doesn’t mean you have to like the manufacturer for it.
  5. Right of Public Display. This right is definitely geared towards art and sculptures; however, the Internet has raised new issues with this right, just like it has with all the other rights discussed so far. Even before the Internet, this right was severely limited: anyone who lawfully acquired a copyrighted right work could display it in public. Putting the work, or pictures of it, somewhere other than where the work is located, such as on TV or a website, would violate this right. Google was sued for a violation of this right when it started using thumbnail images in its search results; however, they won the lawsuit on a fair use defense. I’ll talk more about fair use in another article.
  6. Right of Public Transmission of Sound Recordings. As the name implies, this right applies primarily to music, though audiobooks and voice-only recordings would be covered as well. At the time the law was drafted, radio was the only technology capable of publicly transmitting sound recordings. Now this right is implicated in a number of technologies, such as Internet streaming and cell phone apps.

These six rights are all exclusive to the copyright owner. Only the owner can do these things, and anyone else who does them without permission has violated the owner’s copyright. These rights are also divisible; the owner can give away some of these rights without giving away the rest, if they are so inclined.

Hopefully this has given the copyright owners of the world a better idea of what rights they have to their works. If this has just made things even more confusing than they were before, please don’t hesitate to contact me at kaway@kawaylaw.com.

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