Basic copyright principles
Most of the principles and rules of copyright that were developed for printed books over two centuries now also apply to ebooks. Copyright grants the creator of a work exclusive rights for a limited time, such as the right to copy and to decide who can sell, perform, adapt or use the work in other specified ways.
There are four things to keep in mind as you navigate this important part of the publishing process:
- Copyright in a literary work starts with its creator. Unless the author disposes of those rights (for example, by assigning them to a publisher), they remain his or hers alone.
- You don’t have to register your copyright. It’s automatically yours as a result of the fact that you created an original work. (The US has an optional (paid) copyright registration system that provides additional protections.)
- It’s protected internationally. Almost every country is a signatory to the Berne Convention which sets the fundamental copyright protections.
- Copyright is not a single right: it’s a bundle of rights. They can be sliced, diced, and apportioned to several others in numerous ways. How you do this can have a big impact on income and readership potential.
Copyright laws are designed to balance the economic interests of creators against the public good that comes from using their works. This includes the encouragement of innovation.
Many of these basic principles are getting a fresh airing as digitization offers new ways to access and use literary works. Here are some examples.
- What are readers‘ rights to the ebooks they buy? Can they lend them to friends, copy them to other e-reading devices, re-sell them when they’re no longer needed?
- How should libraries acquire and use ebooks for public lending? Should authors and publishers be compensated, and should authors have the sole right to decide whether or not their ebooks can be loaned?
- Should schools and other educational institutions have special rights over copyright materials, for instance, the right to modify or freely incorporate them into new works for the purpose of study?
Two important legal principles
Two legal principles have become central to much of the debate over digital works and underpin a lot of the thinking — and litigation — around digital copyright.
#1 Exhaustion of rights (also known as first-sale doctrine in the US)
This is the principle that allows you to resell a secondhand copy of a book or give it away or lend it. Once the copyright owner has sold a copy of their work, they can no longer exercise control over its transfer (though they can still prevent copies being made from it).
So far, digital goods are exempt from first-sale so the copyright owner can, in fact, restrict what a buyer does with the work they’ve bought. This legal principle is behind many of the debates surrounding restrictions on reader and library use of ebooks.
#2 Fair dealing (or fair use in the US)
While copyright law prevents anyone else from copying an author’s work, it does allow some limited copying and modification, such as quotes and excerpts for reviewing and private study.
These exemptions to the copyright owner’s exclusive rights are known as fair dealing or fair use and are behind many of the issues of usage that arise in education, or in commercial settings such as Google’s right to show ‘snippets’ from works in its search results.
These issues can be complex to understand and even harder to communicate. But publishers and authors will have to be in the vanguard if they want to protect their rights and play a leading role in determining the wider public good to come from the use of their digital works.
Where rights contracts are found
In the digital world, there is no physical product to put boundaries around usage, so a lot more has to be done by contract. You’ll find contracts in all sorts of places, from the author/creator to the reader, but there are four main types:
- Permission to use others’ content and technology in your work
- Rights to publish ebooks
- Rights to distribute ebooks
- Rights to use ebooks
Let’s look at these in more detail.
A useful guide that also covers the optional US copyright registration system.