Copyright Info

Demystifying Copyright

We founded RightsClick on the premise that you do not need to become a legal expert in copyright law to understand the fundamentals about your rights. BUT those fundamentals are important, if you want to take control of your rights. So, first things first:

Under U.S. law, the moment you finish a new work of expression, you are the legal Author of that work, and certain exclusive rights to control the use of that work belong to you.

You may sell, transfer, negotiate limited licenses, or disregard one or more of your “bundle of rights” as you choose. That bundle comprises your copyright rights.

Copyright information to help demystify the law.

Your right to control the use of your work does not depend on money changing hands. A use without permission need not be commercial to be infringing.

Your Exclusive Rights (a.k.a. Section 106 of the Copyright Act)

You might hear copyright referred to as a “bundle of rights.” This is because the law protects your right to permit the use of your work in a variety of ways.

Reproduction: the right to make copies of your work, including copies of some portion of the whole work (e.g., a verse from a song).

Derivative Works: the right to make new works based on some portion of the original work. Classic examples are spin-offs, translations, and adaptations.

Distribution: the right to make copies of your work available to the public. Even if no money is involved, only you can authorize distribution.

Public Performance: the right to perform works like scripts, songs, movies/videos, and choreography in a place open to the public (beyond just friends and family). The performance can be in person, like concert, or via transmission, like radio, TV, or the internet.

NOTE: There are lots of special rules for Sound Recordings, which have a more limited public performance right and does not include radio broadcast.

Public Display: the right to show a work at a place open to the public (again, beyond friends and family). This right typically applies to works you look at (e.g., photos, illustrations, paintings, sculptures). This is a big one because there is a LOT of display online. Note: if/when you find your work displayed online, it may be necessary to figure out which website is actually hosting the image.

Public Performance by Digital Audio Transmission: only for sound recordings, this basically means the right to stream those recordings for the listening public.

  • Type of work.
  • Author’s Name
  • Whether it is registered.
  • Whether it was ever published.
    • Date of first publication.
    • Nation of first publication.
  • The creation date.

Duration of Copyright Protection

For any work created by a U.S. citizen after January 1, 1978, the term of protection is the Life of the Author Plus 70 Years. For older works, works created by non-U.S. citizens, and older published works (and which may also be non-U.S.), the duration thing gets a little complicated to summarize. Such instances may require some research with the help of a qualified attorney. But don’t let people on the internet tell you it’s already in the public domain because it might not be!

Anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire (WMFH) are protected for a term of 95 years from date of first publication or 120 years from date of creation.

NOTE: Although we strongly urge everyone to register a work as soon as possible after it’s completed, a post-1978 work may be registered with the Copyright Office at any time during its term of protection.

What the Heck Does “Published” Mean?

For registration, the Copyright Office asks whether the work(s) being submitted are published or unpublished. This presents two questions for many customers. The first is understanding the legal meaning of “published,” and the second (sometimes) is trying to remember when that work was first published, which is the date the Copyright Office wants to know.

While the meaning of “published” is a long and complicated tale, what we tell customers is that publication typically involves offering to distribute copies of the work to the general public, whether for money or not. The question of “publication” may involve the volume or reach to a general versus a limited audience, and if you are unsure, you should seek legal counsel. Typically, display of a work (e.g., on a website or in a gallery) is not considered publication. See the Glossary entry.

How publication is defined in the Copyright Act.

What About Fair Use?

Maybe causing more confusion than “published,” is fair use, if only because the term is cited all the time, but not always correctly. We could write hundreds of pages about fair use. In fact we have. But assuming you don’t want that deep a dive, we created a shallow wade into the subject on its own page.

Yes, you may email us your copyright question, and we’ll do our best to answer, but RightsClick is not your attorney, and it does not provide legal advice.

Other Resources

While there is no shortage of copyright opinion to be found on social media, we recommend avoiding a lot of that and begin with the resources and information provided by the artists’ rights advocacy organizations.