Intro to Knowing Your Rights

We've explained that you usually own the rights in what you create. But what are those rights?

Under U.S. federal law, a copyright owner, initially the author, has the following exclusive rights:

  1. The right to copy or reproduce the work in any format, whether digital or analog;
  2. The right to make derivative works (all kinds of adaptations of the work, including translations, revisions, film versions of books, etc.);
  3. The right to control distribution of new (but not used) copies of the work;
  4. The right to perform the work publicly;
  5. The right to display the work publicly.

It is worth noticing what is missing, at least from the perspective of the author. The law does not create an attribution right, which is the right to receive name credit for your works. That is something the author must provide for herself through contract.

The rights the law does grant are very broad: reproduction, public performance, and display rights extend to multiple media, including digital media (downloading and streaming) and even to new media not yet invented.

Next, the derivative works right (#2 in our list above) deserves particular attention. This right is also very broad—it covers translations, adaptations into other media, and other modifications and variations, including sequels. If you give up your right to make adaptations of your work, you restrict your right to create future works based on your initial creation.

For example, say you write a novel and give up all rights in it, including the derivative works right. If you decided to write a sequel, or recast the novel as a screenplay, you may end up infringing the adaptation right that you transferred earlier.

Or suppose you create a video game with original animated characters. If you give up your derivative works right, you will have lost the right to adapt the game to new platforms, or to reuse the characters in new games.

Or suppose you are an academic. If you give up your derivative works right, you may not be able to revise or incorporate excerpts from your work into another book or article.

There is much more to this topic than we can cover here. For more complete and more legal explanations of what rights authors have under copyright, see our copyright links.

The Employment Exception (Works for Hire) →