How do licenses work? (weekly widget)

Often a copyright owner (or the owner of any other kind of right) does not want to give her rights away, but does want to allow some people to use the subject of the rights in some way. This permission to use the subject of an exclusive right without liability is called a license. If I own land, for example, I can allow my neighbor to cross that land every morning to get to his bus stop. This is a simple license; I promise not to prosecute my neighbor for trespass, but I retain all the other rights in the land, include the right to exclude others and even to prosecute my neighbor if he trespasses outside the scope of the license. Since licenses are private contracts, they can be very flexible, allowing all sorts of terms and conditions to be built in.

Lots of intellectual property is now licensed for specific uses rather than sold, and no copyright is transferred or assigned. In these cases, the money paid is not a purchase price but is “consideration” for the license contract, the use is governed by the terms of that contract, and the parties are bound by the scope of the agreement. Licenses can restrict uses that would be permitted under copyright law if the copyrighted material had been sold. For example, a license can explicitly forbid uses that would be considered fair use if the user had bought the work; things like short quotes from the subject material may be forbidden by contract. Also, purchasing a copyrighted work usually gives the buyer the right (called a “first sale” right) to further distribute that copy – resell it, lend it or give it away – while licenses often forbid this subsequent distribution.

But licenses also can help an author share her work in appropriate ways. Some publishers, in fact, will now accept an “exclusive right of first publication” – a licensed right that does not involve transfer of the copyright – as sufficient to publish a journal article (note that exclusive licenses, like copyright transfers, must be in writing). And many academic authors, as well as millions of other creators, are starting to use Creative Commons licenses to permit many uses of their work while still retaining the right to explicitly authorize or forbid those other uses that fall outside the terms of the license. As we shall discuss next, the Creative Commons is often a better way to protect the values important in the academy than reliance on traditional copyright law is.