Licensing law relates to the authorized use of a copyrighted work. Whenever any original work or art, literature, or music is fixed in a tangible medium (i.e., written down, painted, recorded, etc.) it is automatically copyrighted in the name of the creator. The creator now owns certain intangible property rights in the work called intellectual property rights. Although there are mechanisms to register this copyright, these are not mandatory to creating the copyright. A copyright means that nobody else may reproduce the work or make derivative works (unless they fall under "fair use" exceptions) without first obtaining a license.
Licenses are granted by the owner of intellectual property, usually in exchange for a fee, to authorize another person to use that work. Examples of licensed uses of copyrighted works include republishing a photograph, using someone's song on a TV show or movie soundtrack, or republishing a portion of someone's book or news article. In all of these events, the owner of the copyrighted work can allow someone else to use the intellectual property, but retains the ultimate ownership of the original work through the application of licensing law. Licenses can dictate the number of copies made, where the work will be used, whether it can be re-used, and most other issues that could come up with the use of the intellectual property.
Work for Hire
Licenses are different than "work for hire," where an employer holds the copyright, not the actual creator of the intellectual property. In "work for hire," although the creator has no licensing rights, s/he does retain "moral rights" to their work, including the right of attribution. However, they are not otherwise able to re-sell the work or license its use to anyone other than the employer for whom it was created.
"Fair use" is an exception to the exclusive rights held by the copyright owner in which a user does not have to obtain a license to the intellectual property. Examples of fair use include using copyrighted works for educational purposes, making comments and criticisms of the work as part of a news report or published criticism, and, perhaps most famously, parody. Simply using a copyrighted work for noncommercial or nonprofit purposes does not qualify as fair use.
Another type of work that is not subject to licensing is that intellectual property that has fallen into the public domain. Copyright ownership expires after the creator's death (generally 50 to 70 years after death in most countries, though this number has been enlarged many times in the United States to protect famous properties).
Common Licensing Agreements
There are also some common licensing agreements that have come into popular use in the modern digital age. Examples include the Creative Commons license popularized by Wikipedia, the MIT License, the BSD License, the Apache License, and the GNU General Public License. Generally, these agreements allow liberal use of the intellectual properties they cover, often free of charge, but are used to retain at least minimal control over the works to technically keep them from falling into the public domain.
For more information on licensing laws, check the resources below. You may also be able to find an experienced attorney in your area under the "Law Firms" tab, above.
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