What is a copyright license?

updated on March 15, 2024 ⋅ 3 min read

A copyright license gives a person or entity (“licensee") the authorization to use a work from the copyright owner, usually in exchange for payment. Copyright licenses may be exclusive or nonexclusive, and the rights that come with them vary according to the specifics of each license.

One of the most common copyright license situations is when an author licenses their publisher to publish, distribute, and sell their book. In return, the author receives compensation and/or royalties. Generally, if you want to use someone else's copyrighted work, you should see obtain a copyright license agreement from the owner. And if you are looking to license your work, register your copyright first so your rights to the work are clear.

Copyright principles related to licensing

Copyright owners enjoy several rights to their works: the rights of reproduction, distribution, public performance and display, preparation of derivative works, and, in the case of sound recordings, digital transmission. For works of fine art, the copyright owner also retains moral rights—the right to prevent revision, alteration, or distortion of their work.

One of the benefits of having a copyright, of course, is to be able to stop others from infringing on the work. In some instances, though, a copyright owner may find it beneficial—financially or otherwise—to grant someone else the authority to exercise one or more (or even part of one or more) of the rights that come with the copyright.

Note that the assignment of rights is similar to a license but with an important distinction: When a copyright owner assigns their rights to a work to someone else, they lose the rights.

Exclusive vs. nonexclusive copyrights

If you grant an exclusive license of your work, only the licensee can use the work—even you, as the original copyright owner, are excluded from using the work in the manner and length of time described in the license. Moreover, the copyright owner may not authorize anyone other than the exclusive licensee to exercise the granted rights. An exclusive license, therefore, is essentially a transfer of copyright rights.

By contrast, a nonexclusive license allows more than one licensee the right to use the copyrighted work as described in the license. This type of license still allows the copyright owner to reserve and exercise the rights granted as well as to grant the right to other licensees simultaneously.

Licensees, however, may not authorize others to exercise the rights to that work without permission from the copyright owner, and they have no rights to assert claims of copyright infringement. Only the copyright owner may sue and potentially recover damages for infringement.

A copyright license agreement provides the terms of the contract between the copyright owner and the licensee. A strong copyright license agreement includes:

  • Parties' identities
  • Name and description of the copyrighted work
  • Clear statement of who owns the copyright
  • Type of license
  • Rights being licensed
  • Any limiting information regarding the license (such as geography, time frame)
  • Payment and/or royalty structure
  • How the agreement may be terminated

Copyright licenses can be a tricky area of law because every situation is different. If you want to be sure you're retaining or purchasing the rights you want, consult an experienced attorney to guide you through the process.