What Can Happen When You Have a Copyright?

by Cindy Hill
Copyright holders can sell or transfer their rights.

Copyright holders can sell or transfer their rights.

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Copyrights attach to an original creative work once it is placed in fixed form. Copyright gives the holder the exclusive right to reproduce the work, distribute it, display or perform it, and to create derivative works from it, as well as the ability to transfer any or all of these rights to others. A copyright holder can be involved in a number of legal transactions that are based on the holder's rights in the work.

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A copyright holder can transfer any or all of her copyrights to another person or entity by donation or sale. The transfer of copyright must be done in writing, and signed by the copyright holder or her designated agent. A copyright holder can also grant a nonexclusive license to use a copyright work. This temporary nonexclusive transfer does not have to be in writing. Copyrights can also be bequeathed to heirs in a will in the same manner as any other personal property. There is no specific form required to transfer a copyright, but the transfer can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to put the public on notice as to who now owns the copyright to a particular work.


Others may infringe upon a copyright you hold by using the copyright-protected work without your permission. Not all unpermitted uses of copyrighted works constitute a copyright infringement, however. The fair use doctrine allows certain limited uses of copyrighted works, including using excerpts for purposes of literary or artistic criticism or in a classroom for purposes of illustrating a lesson. Copyrighted works may also be used lawfully as the subject of satire or parody.


You have the option of registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. While basic copyright protection arises the instant a creative original work is committed to a fixed, tangible form, a copyright holder cannot sue for copyright infringement unless the copyrighted work has been registered. If the registration is made within three months after the copyrighted work is created, a copyright holder who is successful in suing a person for infringement is entitled to collect additional damages and the cost of bringing the lawsuit. Copyright registration also puts the public on notice of your copyright ownership, making it easier for people to find you who may wish to purchase the right to use your copyrighted work.


Copyrights do not last forever. Once a copyright expires, the work it protected is considered part of the public domain and anyone may use the work in the same manner the copyright holder could have during the period the copyright was in effect. The copyright on most works created after January 1, 1978 endure for the life of the original creator plus 70 years. If you purchased the copyright on a recent painting from the artist or her estate, for example, the copyright you purchased will expire 70 years after the artist dies, at which point you will not be able to preclude others from reproducing the work. Works made for hire, anonymously or prior to 1978 may have different terms of expiration.