Copyright, like most other “property” rights, can be sold, inherited through a will, given away or otherwise passed to other people (or corporate bodies). Since copyright is really a bundle of rights – reproduction, distribution, public performance, etc. – it can also be divided up and the different pieces transferred to different people under all kinds of different terms. Thus I can sell my right to reproduce and distribute a song I write to a music publishers, give my right to authorize public performances of that song to my sister (a singer), and will my right to allow translations of the song into other languages to my children.
When I transfer an entire right or my whole copyright (i.e., I keep nothing for myself), that is called an assignment or transfer of the right. Most transfers of copyright must be in writing. In the past, most publication agreements required that an author assign his or her copyright to the publisher; authors rarely retained any of their rights. Today many publication contracts still require a copyright transfer, but they allow authors to retain certain rights like the right to post an article on a personal web page or use it for a conference presentation. Essentially, the publisher who receives the assignment grants these rights back to the author. But increasingly we are seeing another method for sharing the rights in intellectual property being used – the license. As we shall see, a license can be used to make it either much easier or much harder to use a work of intellectual property.