Module 4

The Balancing Act: What Rights Do Copyright Owners Have?

This module simplifies a very complex subject. This module is offered for information only, and is not a substitute for legal advice.


Canada’s Copyright Act balances the needs of two groups: copyright owners and users of copyright-protected works. Let’s take a general look at what you should know about what rights copyright owners have. User rights will be explored in another module.

It’s useful to think about a copyright owner having two types of rights: economic and moral. These rights are automatically held by the copyright owner upon creation of a work; only the copyright owner can waive them or transfer them to someone else.

Economic rights give copyright owners the right to be compensated when their creations are used by others. This category of rights includes rights related to:

  • Image representing economic rightsreproduction,
  • public performance,
  • publication,
  • distribution,
  • conversion and transfer (to a different medium), and
  • translation and adaptation.

Let’s examine four of these economic rights more closely.

The right of reproduction gives copyright owners the exclusive right to produce a work and make subsequent reproductions of the work or substantial parts of it. The copyright owner is also the only person who can authorize others to make reproductions of their work.  Examples of reproduction include, but are not limited to, photocopying a magazine article or downloading files from the Internet.

Image representing the right of public performanceThe right of public performance gives copyright owners the exclusive right to perform their work in public. Examples of public performance include, but are not limited to, showing a TV broadcast or film, playing music, or having your students perform a play in class.

The right of publication gives copyright owners the exclusive right to make a work available to the public, with some exceptions. Examples of publication include publishing a journal article or a book.

The right of distribution gives copyright owners the exclusive rights to share a work. Examples of distribution include uploading a file to a learning management system or emailing a work to a colleague or student.

Image representing transfer of economic rightsCan economic rights be transferred to another person or company? Absolutely. Yes! And in various ways. Generally, however, there are two forms of transfer: a transfer of ownership, which is usually called an “assignment”, and a transfer of only certain rights (like the right to make copies of a book for a particular class at your institution), which is usually called a licence.

Where you see a creator’s work published by someone else (a journal publisher, an edited collection, an anthology, etc.), the creator has likely transferred the copyright in the work, or has granted a licence for some of their rights, to the publisher.

For example, if the author of a journal article transfers some or all of these economic rights to the journal publisher (like the exclusive first right to publish in Canada), they may no longer be able to authorize certain uses of the article (e.g., copying the article and distributing it to students).

So, if you wish to use a published work, even if the creator may not be able to grant permission, they may be a good place to start on your quest to find the person who does have that authority.

Image representing moral rightsNow let’s look at moral rights.

Moral rights protect the reputation of creators and the integrity of their work. That means creators can choose to have their name associated with their work, use a pseudonym, or remain anonymous.

Authors can also protect the integrity of their work from actions that

  • distort, mutilate or otherwise modify their work in a way that is prejudicial to the author’s honour and reputation, or
  • associate their work with a product, institution, or cause.

A creator cannot assign or transfer their moral rights in the same way they can economic rights. A creator can, however, decide not to make use of their moral rights, and waive them.

Image representing TPMs or digital locksIn addition to these rights, there is another protection afforded to copyright owners by the Copyright Act. Copyright owners can use technological protection measures, sometimes referred to as TPMs or digital locks.

TPMs use encryption technology to control access to copyright-protected works and to prevent unauthorized copying of content including movies, games, and software. This technology can also be used to control access to password-protected content. An example would be an e-book that has limits on the number of pages that can be downloaded or printed.

Only the copyright owner can authorize removing or circumventing TPMs (i.e. a user must ask permission from the copyright owner). Additionally, there are limited exceptions that allow for TPM circumvention, such as for persons with perceptual disabilities.

Our copyright law encourages creation and innovation by giving copyright owners control over copying of their works. To learn more about copyright, ask the person or office designated by your institution to answer copyright questions or check your institution’s copyright guides. Your institutional library is a good place to start.

Go to Module 5.