Something people in the book world often misunderstand about copyright

There is something that people in the book world often don’t understand about copyright. When I say book world I mean librarians, booksellers, reviewers, researchers, authors, and sometimes publishers.

A question that people often want to know the answer to is “Who owns the copyright” to a work, because they may want to know if they are free to reproduce it without permission, or for some other reason. Someone with this question may look at the verso of the title page of the book and see that the copyright is owned by the author, and conclude from that that the author is the rights holder who has the authority to grant permission, etc.

In such a case the author indeed “owns the copyright,” but is not necessarily the rights holder concerning the rights in question.

Most contracts in the publishing world do not involve an actual transfer of the copyright to the publisher. That is quite rare.

To be the copyright owner of a work, which one automatically is when one creates a work in a fixed medium, means owning a bundle of rights regarding the publication and use of the work. Those rights can be split up and traded separately, and for limited time periods, through contractual relationships. So, typically, a publishing contract will give the publisher a limited set of rights for a limited time period, after which the contract might renew itself if no one objects. Those rights might include publication and sale in particular countries, translation into foreign languages, performance, adaptation, etc. Publisher’s contracts often include as many rights as possible, but usually for a limited duration.

What this means is that the copyright information on the verso of the title page of a book does not tell you who owns the rights to the work as they might concern you. Even if it states that the book is “Copyright Wanda Y. Datso, 2009,” the author may not be the rights holder in terms of your question. The only way to find out who owns a particular set of rights to a work is to look at the contracts between the author and other interested parties. Note that the original copyright owner may give up rights to more than one party in a variety of ways – non-exclusively, for limited time periods, and for limited kinds of rights (e.g. translation into particular languages), so more than one party may own different rights to a work at the same time. Also note that the separate rights under copyright can be sold, given away, lent, shared, inherited, under any legal arrangement that people devise.

I think the potential complexity of this tableau of rights is often not realized by researchers who want to find the rights holder to a work. The key things that people need to realize are that “owning the copyright” is not the same thing as being the rights holder, and that the distribution of rights is done through contracts, and can be accomplished in countless, creative ways. (After all, this is the basis of the Creative Commons licenses.)

2 comments on “Something people in the book world often misunderstand about copyright

  1. Fascinating post, Rory, and one germane to my recent questions about copyright and the People’s Temple publications. I want to know who, if anyone, lays claim to “own” those writings — and I suppose a good follow up might ask what rights they have sold away.

    Still, it seems to me that the nuances you raise aren’t germane to traditional research. The kinds of rights you discuss (for example, the audiobook rights that had publishers up in arms against the idea that the Kindle would be able to “read” a book) don’t typically come into play when writing about a text. That a publisher has first world rights to a book has no impact on my ability to quote from that work — does it? (It would affect my ability to publish a critical edition or to excerpt beyond fair/critical use, but that’s a separate enterprise.)

    You might be curious to read about the attempts of the courts to parse copyright ownership of Superman right now. The courts have decided that the estates of the men who created Superman own copyright to comics where Clark Kent, Lois Lane, the Daily Planet Planet and other fixtures of the Superman story appear — but not the fact that Superman can fly, because the stories in which Superman flies were drawn under different legal contracts. Fun to watch.

  2. Hi, David. It’s true that it would mainly be publication rights in the US market that are germane to research here (or potentially translation rights if someone wants to translate something from another language in order to quote it). But the thing is that that right is one that can and normally is bought and sold apart from actual copyright ownership (and usually for a limited duration). This means that finding out positively who controls the rights to a work generally means making contact with the publisher or the author and finding out the status from them. The registry at the Copyright Office can be of some help in locating a contact person, but can only tell you who owns the copyright, not who controls the rights that you are interested in. Regarding the People’s Temple, it could be a matter of finding out from probate records what happened to the assets of the organization. It could be tricky. My approach would be to do a fair use analysis first to see what I felt I could quote freely under fair use, and maybe limit my use to that, if that would be practical.

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