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What are Exclusive Rights?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Kristee — On Aug 15, 2012

@orangey03 – Wow, I had never heard that about mailing a work to yourself. I guess that would serve as proof, but I think that visiting the copyright website is still the safest route.

I write novels, but I write under a pen name. If one of my books gets famous one day, I want to be absolutely sure that no one else tries to claim that they are the writer and gets away with it. When I applied for exclusive rights, I supplied both my real name and my pen name.

If some movie producer ever showed interest in my book, I would want to be sure that I had exclusive rights to sell the book as a movie. I wouldn't want to miss out on all that money!

By orangey03 — On Aug 15, 2012

I write songs and poems, and I download a copyright from from the copyright office for each one before publishing it anywhere. I have heard that there are other methods of getting a copyright, but I don't know if they really would hold up in court, so I go the safe route.

I've always heard that if you record or write down the work, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to yourself, it is as good as purchasing a copyright certificate. As long as you don't open the envelope, it can be proven by the postmark date that you wrote the song or poem at a certain point in time, and if anyone tries to copy it after that, you will be safe.

When you get a copyright form, you have to pay a fee to have your work on file in the copyright office. If you really think that it might get stolen someday, then this is worth the money.

By JackWhack — On Aug 14, 2012

I always wondered if parodies of songs violated some exclusive rights agreement. I thought that surely someone writing a parody must have to get permission from the copyright holder, but I guess that isn't so.

I have heard of some artists being upset about parodies of their songs becoming popular. However, there probably wasn't anything they could legally do about this.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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