Copyright Q: Distribution rights

A question’s come up in this thread and rather than hijack that one further I’m bringing it here. The question is about the right to distribute copyrighted works. I contend that distribution rights are automatically assigned to the copyright holder unless specifically assigned elsewhere; others are indicating their belief that distribution rights can go unassigned to anyone and in such a case anybody who wants to can distribute the copyrighted work.

Although I am not a lawyer, from experiance I know that with the copyright comes permission to share the work, for free or for a fee. No one else has the right to do so without the consent (usually in contractual form) of the copyright holder. Copyright law is unclear in many areas, so a lawyer who speicializes in this is recommended. Also know that if you go through the extra step of formally registeriing your works (which you own the copyright to when you create them), you will have extra legal protections.

Hope that helps a little.

I’m not sure what you mean by “distribution.”

The copyright holder has to agree to allow any copies to be made. Once the copies are made, they can be distributed in any manner. For instance, a book publisher can sell them to a wholesaler, who sells them to a retailer. The copyright holder is not involved in the distribution process; that’s a business decision by whoever he licenses to make the copies and copyright law doesn’t apply.

Distribution is generally a contractual issue, not a legal one.

Now if someone makes copies of the work illegally, they do not have the right to distribute them, either.

From the initial thread:

On the hypothetical that no one actually owned the distribution rights of a film, who would take action against someone distributing copies? Only somebody who potentially could be losing royalties would be in a position to complain.

OK. I looked at the thread. vl_mungo is 100% wrong. He’s saying “no one owns the rights.” Well, if no one owns the distribution rights on a copyrighted work (and the work discussed is clearly under copyright), no one owns the rights. Period.

Consider Fahrenheit 9/11. Miramax/Disney (depending on whose story you believe) refused to distribute the film. Thus, at that point, no one owned the distribution rights. Did that make it fair game for any distributor? No. Moore found another distributor – and no one had the right to distribute it until he agreed to it.

The entire argument is nonsensical – people losing their legal rights to control the work because of a lack of a contract? On that basis, any unpublished work could be picked up by a publisher and distributed, because, after all, until you sell the book, there are no distribution rights.

The only time when you can distribute a work without needing permission is if the work is in the public domain.

The copyright holder. You’re making copies without permission.

And “losing royalties” is not an issue in copyright violation. Making a copy is.

Correct that unless transferred, the copyright holder owns the distribution rights. However, the copyright holder can cease to exist. At least in practical terms. Imagine someone writes just one song. They give me a copy of the sheet music. Then this person just dies. Leaving no findable heirs. Let’s say I record that song and it becomes a hit. Unless an heir pops up out of the woodwork somehow, I have little to worry about.

On a Google search, others have commented on the issue of “orphan” copyrighted works.

Distinguishing the obvious: draw the line between the physical possession of objects whose content is copyright, and the intellectual right to permit or forbid the making of copies of said object.

The author of a book, for example, holds copyright. He sells the right to publish his book manuscript, involving the making of bound saleable copies of the contents of his manuscript, to a publisher. The publisher then causes the book to be printed, and markets it. A wholesaler obtains 10,000 copies of it, and sells them in smaller quantities to bookstores, who then sell them retail one at a time. We now have 10,000 consumers who own single copies of a book – not the contents, which are still the intellectual property of the author, but the readable object.

For the ten millionth time, getting away with an illegal act doesn’t make it any less illegal.

At the moment, you are required to find the heirs. You may be able to get away with it, but once the heirs find out, you’re in big trouble. And if you’re making money on it, you can bet the heirs will hear about it.

You are violating copyright and if anyone can come forward to sue, you lose.

There is a rule-making process for orphaned works, but the law has not been amended for that.

From what I was reading on those sites about orphaned copyrighted works, lots of them exist where odds are the heirs won’t hear about it. The problem though is that there is always the chance one will, and thus they cease to be available at all. To the extent they may vanish for all time. There are old newsreels, films, etc. that are literally disintegrating. Since saving them technically requires making a copy, doing so violates the law. Only works that can be documented to have been produced before 1923 are safely in the public domain.

And I have to figure in some cases literally there can be no heirs or successors. Some business creating newsreels in the 1930s surely must have become insolvent, with nobody at time thinking it was worth bothering to pay for the rights to whatever intellectual property they owned before they went belly up. In such cases today even someone with lots of money wanting to buy the rights could never find anyone who legally owned them to buy them from. In such cases nothing can be done until eventually the copyrights do expire and they fall into the public domain.

Well, I doubt the numbers are all that great for anything worthwhile. There are works after 1923 that are in public domain (see http://www.archive org for PD movies and music), so they’re not an issue. And it isn’t all that hard to check to see if a film is in public domain or not – the Copyright office has a database.

People who made newsreels in the 30s most likely never renewed copyright, so they’re PD. Again, look at

And the questions you raise are one reason the copyright office is looking into rules for orphan works. However, the rules are not in effect, and until the law is amended, they don’t apply.

Of course, just because it’s copyrighted doesn’t mean you cannot legally copy it.

The key portion here is actually point 3, when you’re talking about a complete and slavish copy, as copying an entire work is rarely considered to be “Fair Use”. However, I have read in my research on copyright that courts have looked favourably upon honest preservation efforts, especially those by recognized and well-organized libraries (as opposed to someone saying “Dude, I have to copy these Night Ranger MP3s, otherwise no one will ever hear them again!”), where the purpose is simply to preserve a deteriorating work. I do not have any cases to cite, so I may be relying on faulty memory. At a minimum, it’s certainly a defense.

A later section of the law allows libraries (and libraries only) to make archive copies of movies, CDs, etc.