In copyright law, exclusive rights are rights that are reserved for the copyright owner. The copyright owner is the sole person who can exercise those rights or grant them to others through a license. In the event that a copyright owner grants an exclusive right, it is possible to terminate that transfer at a later date. This is designed to protect copyright holders for the duration of their copyrights.
There are six exclusive rights, sometimes referred to as the “pillars of copyright.” They are all protected under the law. The first and perhaps the most important is the right to reproduce a work. While people can reproduce excerpts of a work in fair use, they cannot substantively copy a work. For example, quoting several sentences from a book in a review with appropriate attribution is fair use. Reprinting an entire book is not, because only the copyright holder has the right to reproduce the work.
Copyright holders also reserve the right to make derivative works, including works that transform the original work. The law, however, allows for derivative works that are clearly parodies. Thus, someone cannot take a book, change a few elements in the story, and reprint it for profit. Someone can, however, make a parody of the original work which, while clearly referencing the work it is based on, is also an original work.
Other exclusive rights include the right to publicly perform, display, and transmit copyrighted works. Performance includes things like plays and musical compositions, while the right to display works applies to things like sculpture, photography, and other works of visual art, including stills from films. Transmission applies to radio and television broadcasts and other means of transmission. Limitations on who is allowed to present work are designed to present situations in which people profit or benefit from performing, transmitting, or displaying work that is not theirs.
Finally, the copyright holder holds the exclusive right of distribution. Copyright holders determine how and when their work is distributed and by whom. Controlling avenues of distribution allows people to decide not only who uses their work, but how it is used. In all cases, exclusive rights provide people with a means of controlling their creative work.
Exclusive rights are not unlimited. The approach to copyright is also commonly in a state of flux. For example, some people might argue that sampling of songs for remixes, as is done in clubs, is copyright infringement. Others do not agree, including some artists who actively encourage people to sample their work.