Knowing Right and Wrong — Fun with Copyright

POSTED ON Dec 20, 2018

David Kudler

Written by David Kudler

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By David Kudler

I’ve been asked a few times recently about who owns the copyright to a book that’s been uploaded to Amazon’s KDP.

The answer is, as it almost always is, the author.

It’s important to understand the difference between copyright and a license.


Copyright is the underlying ownership of the work — what’s known to the lawyer types as the intellectual property. Whether the work is

  • the text of a book
  • a song
  • a piece of software
  • a painting

the creator of the work owns all rights to the work for her or his lifetime, and then her or his estate maintains ownership for another 70 years.i

That’s what it means when a copyright notice states, “All rights reserved.” It’s legalese for Hands off. Mine.

For the copyright owner to give ownership rights up, they need to transfer rights by:

  • selling it
  • gifting it
  • releasing it into the public domain

Otherwise? The owner is the owner.


You can also offer others a limited license to some of your underlying rights. It’s like offering to rent them a room in a building you own.

  • You can offer them a license to publish or distribute the work in a particular language, like English or Tagalog, or all languages.
  • Or a region, like Ecuador or South America or the world or throughout the universe.
  • Or for a particular term of time, like a year or ten or forever.
  • Or a particular format, like print or audiobook or, for example, ebooks.ii

The license — the rental agreement, if you will — gives them, the licensee, certain privileges with regards to the (intellectual) property, but it doesn’t mean they own it.

And the license can be exclusive — which means that the copyright holder won’t use the licensed right or allow into anyone else to use it — or non-exclusive, which means that just because the copyright holder is allowing the licensee to use a particular right doesn’t mean that the owner can’t go ahead and license it to someone else.

When you publish through KDP (or iBooks, or NookPress, or IngramSpark, or any other retailer or distributor), you are granting them a license to sell the book on their website (or possibly to distribute it to other retailers). There is no transfer of copyright — basic ownership of the content. The author still owns that.

Usually, that license is non-exclusive. Sometimes, as with KDP Select, it’s exclusive —for that particular format (i.e., ebooks) in that particular territory (i.e., the world) for that particular term (i.e., 90 days).

This is true of most modern publishing agreements as well, which grant the right to publish the book in a specified language(s) and territory/territories for a specified term, as well as granting other possible subsidiary rights, such as film rights or foreign language/territory rights.iii

None of those licenses change ownership of the copyright. If a publisher wants you transfer copyright, you should probably walk away.iv

iOnce the 70 years is up, the work is released into the public domain. So any work by someone dead more than 70 years (or that was created before 1923) is considered fair game. By the way, if there’s any question about who created the work — whether because it was collaborative or because there’s some dispute — you need to contact a lawyer. What are you doing here?
iiYou can also use a particular licensing scheme (such as a Creative Commons license) that allows certain, limited rights in your work to anyone who meets certain criteria spelled out in the license without having to ask your permission ahead of time.
iiiNot granting subsidiary rights for Star Wars to 20th Century Fox was what made George Lucas a very wealthy man. Toys, you know. ☺
ivThis used to be standard practice: the publisher would register copyright in its own name. Changes in copyright law made that a no-no. The copyright should always stay with the author. Another walk-away signal? Lack of any reversion clause. Because at some point, you may want to end the license, and the procedure for doing that needs to be laid out in the license agreement.

Photo: BigStockPhoto

David Kudler

Written by
David Kudler

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