If I buy a copyrighted work, why can’t I do anything with it I want?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Ownership of a copyright is not the same as owning an object which has copyright protection under copyright law. For example, when you buy a book, you get an implied license from the copyright owner (usually the author or publisher) to use the one copy you have purchased for the purpose of reading it. Under copyright law, you do not have the right to copy it or anything else. Buying a single copy of a work is not buying the copyright in the work.

Are there any exceptions to copyright law?

Under federal copyright law, there is an exception for certain types of use that allow you to do more than simply read or exclusively listen to your own copy of the work. Under federal law, these exceptions are:

  • Quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment.
  • Quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations.
  • Use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied.
  • Summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report.
  • Reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy.
  • Reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson.
  • Reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports.
  • Incidental and fortuitous reproduction.
  • In a newsreel or broadcast.
  • Of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.

What are some real life examples of exceptions to copyright law?

Real life examples of permissive fair use under copyright law include:

  • Creative music videos taken from films.
  • Playing a song during a religious worship service.
  • Analyzing a quote from a book in a paper for school, so long as the quote is put in quotation marks.
  • Playing a song from a French rap star in your French class and asking the students to translate.
  • Reading a bible verse during a sermon. 

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