Copyright: Sell or Rent?

Copyright is one of the more difficult and complicated concepts to wrap your mind around. That’s largely because it has to do with an intangible object—intellectual property. Over the years I’ve tried a variety of ways to explain it to authors and others. Here’s one of the best I’ve used.

Copyright is like real estate. If you own a piece of property, there are two things you can do with it to get some dinero. First, you can sell the property. Second, you can rent it.

If you sell the property, you are relinquishing all rights to the property in exchange for some greenbacks. The new owner may build a skyscraper on the land and make a gazillion samoleans (or lose same). In either case, it has nothing to do with you. You are not helped or harmed because you have no legal interest in the land anymore.

If you rent the property, you agree to allow someone to use the land for a certain amount of time for certain purposes in exchange for an agreed amount of shekels. But since you have transfered certain rights to the renter, you can’t just do anything with the property you choose. You can’t rent it out to someone else at the same time figuring you can get twice the rent. You can’t tear down the building on the property. At the same time you still have certain obligations. Likely you have to keep the building in good repair. In any case you still own the land.

With copyright you can also sell or rent. A work for hire is like selling your land. You transfer full, irrevocable ownership of and rights to the work you’ve created to someone else for some dead presidents. The new owner may make a mint or may crash and burn. You aren’t helped or hurt by this because you no longer have any rights in it.

Work for hire agreements are often used with employees (who get their salary in exchange for the intellectual property they create on the job). Freelancers often sign a work for hire agreement to do some work that is part of a larger work or collection.

You can also rent your copyright. You transfer certain rights for a certain period of time. But again, after having signed such a “rental” agreement, you can’t do anything you like with it. In many book contracts, all rights are transferred from the creator to the “renter” (or publisher). Now the publisher can exploit the work in a variety of ways and is obligated to compensate you, the creator, as agreed. You are limited in what you can do on your own with the work by the terms of the publishing agreement you have signed.

Now the work itself may be copyrighted in your name (indicating that you are the owner), but because of your (rental) publishing agreement, what happens to your work is now in the hands of another until the agreement comes to an end. That could happen when the work goes out of print or when some other event happens as defined in the agreement, such as the publisher failing to fulfill certain terms of the agreement.

So real estate and copyright. The analogy works for me. What about you?