Divisibility of Ownership

Prior to the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976,  ownership of a copyright was a single and indivisible right that could not be divided and sold.  Therefore,  an author could not transfer publishing rights to a publisher and distributorship rights to a distributor, where the publisher and distributor were two different people/entities.

This situation, however, proved impractical .  Therefore, the 1976 Copyright Act recognized the divisibility of copyrights by stating that “ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law.”  As a result, the copyright owner’s right can now be split into a number of exclusive rights which may be transferred to any number of recipients[i]. The exclusive rights include:

(1)   reproduction;

(2)   preparation of derivative works;

(3)   distribution;

(4)   public performance;

(5)   public display; and

(6)   digital performance in sound recordings.

These rights may be restricted by putting conditions on their area/time of operation[ii].  For example, publishing rights could be restricted by granting publishing rights only in Hungary, and distribution rights could be restricted by granting distribution rights only on a particular day of the week.

It is the “grant of rights” clause in a publishing agreement or a distributor agreement that will enumerate the list of rights transferred by the author and their extent.  The granting clause can be either very wide in its scope or very limited regarding the extent of rights transferred.  The transferee is entitled to exhaust only those rights specifically enlisted in the grants clause, and anything beyond it that he/she attempts to do will result in copyright infringement.


[i] Section 106 of the 1976 Act

[ii] Section 101 of the 1976 Act


Inside Divisibility of Ownership