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What Rights Does a Copyright Give and How to Obtain One? 

You have made a masterpiece from your creative stroke of genius, but what rights come with it? And how do you formalize and protect those rights with a copyright? 

Rights Granted by Copyright: 

The Copyright Act grants an owner six distinct rights associated with their creative works. Not all of them are relevant to every type of work. Five of these rights are summarized below (the sixth one, which applies only to the public performance of sound recordings through digital audio transmission, is not discussed here):   

Reproduction Right: Only the copyright owner can make copies of their work or give others permission to do so. This includes making physical reproductions such as hard copies of books, photographs, or CDs, or uploading content and posting it to a website. This is one of the most important rights that a copyright owner has since most infringement disputes involve the making of unauthorized copies in some form.  

Distribution Right: The owner controls how their work is sold, shared, transferred, or given away. This can mean physical distribution, like selling illegal copies of a DVD, or electronic distribution by uploading or downloading content online. Usually where there is copying, there is distribution—these two rights often work together. But not always. An example would be copying songs from a CD onto your computer, but not uploading or providing them for anyone else to use. 

Public Performance Right: For musical, theatrical, choreographic, or audiovisual works, the owner decides who can perform, play, or render the work in public (meaning a public space or open to a lot of people outside your normal circle of family & friends). This right applies only to those works that can be performed for others such as by reciting, playing, acting, dancing, or in the case audiovisual works, showing or exhibiting it. It does not apply to sound recordings though, which have a more limited performance right. 

Public Display Right: The owner controls how visual, graphic, or sculptural works are displayed in public. This is similar to the public performance right except that public display pertains to showing a copy of the work. For example, if you posted photos that you personally took on your website, no one else has the right to display them publicly unless you give them permission (or they have a valid defense to do so). 

Derivative Works Right: Only the copyright owner can change their own work or use it to create something new, like a sequel, adaptation, spin-off, translation, or update. For example, J.K. Rowling can use the various expressive elements that she created for her Harry Potter books, like Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore, Muggles, etc. and create other stories with them outside of the direct Harry Potter franchise, like she did for her Fantastic Beasts series. 

How to Obtain a Copyright: 

Automatic Protection: As soon as you create an original work and put it in tangible form (e.g., writing, recording, painting), it is automatically protected by copyright. No paperwork needs to be filed. But…. 

Registration: …In order to significantly strengthen your rights, especially if you want to take legal action against infringers, you must register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office by doing the following: 

Prepare: Have a copy of the work you want to register. 

Apply: Fill out the appropriate form from the U.S. Copyright Office. This can be done online or using paper forms, but online is less expensive and typically takes less time to process. 

Pay: There is a fee associated with registration, which can vary. It is usually not very expensive though and well worth the small financial investment. Check the U.S. Copyright Office’s fee schedule. 

Submit: Submit your application with a copy of the work. If it is accepted, you will receive a certificate of registration from three to six months later, and sometimes much longer. There is a way to expedite the process at times where it only takes one to two weeks, but you will have to pay a large additional fee—and it is only available in very limited instances (like pending infringement litigation). Most of the time you will have to wait several months for the certificate to issue. 


Copyright offers an important bundle of rights to creators to control how their work is used, ensuring that they can reap the economic rewards of their creativity and hard work. While protection is automatic under the Copyright Act, formal registration adds an extra layer of security that offers greater legal protection and benefits—and perhaps some peace of mind too. 


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