What rights does a copyright holder have?
Copyright gives you more than just the exclusive right to copy your work. It actually gives you up to six separate rights, which you alone are exclusively free to either use, give away, or sell in any way you’d like. All of these rights are subject to limitations.
As a copyright holder, you alone have the rights to:
(1) reproduce (copy) the copyrighted work;
(2) prepare new versions and adaptations of you original copyrighted work;
(3) publicly distribute the copyrighted work; (4) publicly perform the copyrighted work;
(5) publicly display the copyrighted work; and
(6) digitally perform copyrighted sound recordings.
(1) Reproduce (copy) the copyrighted work
If you’re an author, you alone have the right to photocopy your short story. If you are a photographer, you alone have the right to post a copy of your picture online.
If you write a novel exposing the widespread corruption in the flatbed scanner industry, no one except you has the right to scan that book into a computer.
This may be surprising to some people, but copying an image from one site in full and pasting it on your own site is considered copyright infringement, unless it meets the requirements for fair use.
Similarly, copying large amounts of text or whole articles from one site to place on your own site, posting copyrighted music onto YouTube, or burning a copy of a new CD for your friend may all be illegal copyright infringement.
If the owners of the copyrights in these works discovered these acts they could sue you. However, the vast majority of everyday infringement like copying a full article from a website into an email to send to a friend goes unnoticed and unpunished.
Increasingly though, more high profile infringement, like downloading music and movies through BitTorrent, is putting Internet users into real legal trouble. Everybody knows about the RIAA lawsuits, but in 2010, even with the RIAA vowing to no longer sue individual downloaders, the number of lawsuits against individual file sharers reached record highs.
Production companies accused tens of thousands of illegally downloading films like The Hurt Locker and Far Cry and sued them.
A company called Righthaven is even suing persons for republishing snippets of articles from newspaper sites on their own personal websites. Many critics consider this company a “copyright troll” that victimizes small webmasters who fairly, legally use the articles they republish.
(2) Prepare new versions and adaptations of your original copyrighted work
If you are a screenwriter, only you have the power to write a sequel to your movie. If you are a photographer, only you can authorize that your photo be cropped and republished. If you are a playwright, only you can authorize someone to film a movie out of your play.
Changes, additions, and variations on original works are called derivative works. Only the copyright holder has the right to make a derivative work unless he or she sells it or give it away.
Keep in mind though that people can still reuse your work and make new works out of it if meet the requirements of “fair use.” This is why anyone can make a movie parody and people can often discuss copyrighted works for educational purposes.
(3) Publicly distribute the copyrighted work
Copyright owners have the exclusive right to control when, why, and how their work is distributed.
If you’re a playwright, no one can perform your play without your authorization. If you’re a novelist, no one can post your manuscript online without your permission. If you’re a musician, no one can post mp3s of your music online.
Just like the other rights, this right is subject to the fair use exception. It’s possible that someone else can distribute part of or even all of your work without permission if they meet the requirements of fair use.
There’s also another limitation on this right known as the First Sale doctrine. Even though you have the sole right to distribute a copy of your work, once it’s actually distributed, anyone has the right to redistribute that specific copy. It’s easy to understand the First Sale doctrine if you think about it this way: once a copyright owner “first sells” a physical copy of his work, her rights to that physical copy disappears.
For example, if you’re in a band, you have the sole right to sell a copy of your band’s CD at your show. However, you may not prevent that person from listening to your CD, selling it to someone else, or letting a friend borrow the physical copy of the CD.
(4) Publicly perform the copyrighted work
Copyright owners can control when their work is presented to the public. It’s easiest to understand this right within the context of musical works, dramatic works (like plays) and choreographic works (like dance steps).
If you’re a writer, publically reading your work requires your permission. If you’re a playwright, performing your play requires your permission. If you’re a choreographer, performing your dance in their music video requires your permission.
This right is different than the reproduction right (the first right discussed). The reproduction right is violated even if the reproduction is made for private purposes. By contrast, this public performance right is not violated by a private performance.
What constitutes a public performance you may ask? A performance is "public" if it occurs at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.
Printing a copyrighted photo and placing it on your bedroom wall does not violate the copyright owner's public display right because the bedroom is not a "public" place. But posting a photo on your website would be a public performance.
Similarly, uses confined to a person’s home with family or close friends are usually considered private performances. But not always; making the public-private distinction can be difficult. A public performance does not require a place crowded with people. So maybe watching a movie in a student dormitory with ten floor-mates is a public use.
Performances can also be public if they are electronically transmitted from a private place to a public place.
If you have questions about how to take advantage of your copyrighted works in practice or how the copyright laws affect the art and entertainment business, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.