This question came up for me within the context of intellectual property rights in a film grant competition.

When “right” is singular, the correct preposition is “to,” such as in the right to free speech.

When “rights” is plural, it’s less clear to me.

Of the following examples, which is correct? If both are technically correct, do they have slightly different meanings?

Who would retain the intellectual property rights to the work?


Who would retain the intellectual property rights for the work?

As a bonus, I am almost certain the below is not correct under any circumstance, but will place it here for good measure, in case I’m wrong:

Who would retain the intellectual property rights on the work?

  • In this sense "rights to" is more idiomatic in the US. I would not say that any of the three is "wrong", though. – Hot Licks Apr 5 '19 at 22:00
  • @HotLicks Make that an answer! Do you think they imply different meanings, however slight? – Jacob Ford Apr 5 '19 at 22:01
  • I can't see a major difference. The latter two are apt to be misinterpreted in certain contexts, however. – Hot Licks Apr 5 '19 at 22:05
  • @HotLicks I still encourage you to write these thoughts up as an answer. How do you think they’d be misinterpreted? Or is it more that they’d just sound awkward? – Jacob Ford Apr 6 '19 at 15:45
  • 1
    I have also seen "rights in the work" fairly often. – user323578 Apr 6 '19 at 15:58

Any of the 3 prepositions can be used after the word "rights".

In this case, decide on the context. "...for the work" sounds best in my opinion. A person would like recognition for (not to or on) work that was done.

In my opinion "to" would be better suited for a sentence like: "John inherited the rights to his uncle's mansion." (Just as he would like keys to (not for or on) the mansion's door). But I would use "for" in the sentence: "John obtained the creative rights for the book he wrote." (Just as he would like to get a publisher for (not to or on) his book).

I can't think of any use cases for "on", but it would certainly be less common than the other two.

Defining a rule for this, would be too complex. But one should judge by the context. Consider common implications of the preposition in question.

Hope that helps :).

  • Definitely helpful. Thanks! Also posted within 5 seconds of @HotLicks, who agrees any are valid but prefers to while you prefer for. I find that interesting—and I still suspect they might imply slightly different meanings though know how. I’m curious if anyone in a legal context would interpret them differently. – Jacob Ford Apr 6 '19 at 16:58
  • Rights is used instead of right because the original owner frequently wants to break them up for assignment or sale. For example, the right to translate a book and sell it in a different country might be sold separately from the movie rights. So the sentences built around this concept can often become quite complex, bringing in more than one preposition. – Global Charm Apr 10 '19 at 4:15

In this sense "rights to" is more idiomatic in the US. I would not say that any of the three is "wrong", though -- I can't see a major difference between them.

At worst, the latter two are apt to be misinterpreted in certain contexts. For instance, "in the works" can mean "under development", so "Joe Blow has intellectual property rights in the works" might be interpreted to mean he's somehow developing them or has a lawyer working to obtain them.

  • Great point about “in.” Is there another expression that “for” could be confused with? I cannot think of one. – Jacob Ford Apr 6 '19 at 17:00

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