Copyright Ownership and Transfers FAQs

When performing copyright research, you may have questions about copy­right rules or terminology. For example, you may uncover a registration indicating the work is “made for hire,” or you may find a document indicating that the copyright has been “reclaimed” by the author. Below are some answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about copyright ownership and transfers.

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What Is a Work Made for Hire?

Usually, the person who creates a work is also the initial owner of the copy­right in the work. But this isn’t always the case. Under some circumstances, a person who pays another to create a work becomes the initial copyright owner, not the person who actually created it. The resulting works are called “works made for hire” (or sometimes simply “works for hire”). There are two distinct types of work that will be classified as made for hire:

  • a work created by an employee within the scope of employment, or
  • a commissioned work that falls within a certain category of works and that is the subject of a written agreement. (The types of works that qualify and other relevant requirements are explained in more detail in Chapter 15.)

If the work qualifies under one of these two methods, the person paying for the work (the hiring party) is the author and copyright owner. If you want to use the work, you should seek permission from the employer or hiring party, not the person who created the work. If in doubt, you may be able to determine work-for-hire status by examining the copyright registration.

What Is a Transfer of Title?

The person who owns a copyright is sometimes referred to as having “title” to the copyright. A “title” is the document that establishes ownership to property, like the title to your car or house. But even in the absence of an official document, the owner of a copyright is often said to have title to it.

Just like title to your car or house, title to a copyright can be sold or otherwise transferred. A person or company can have ownership (title) of a copyright transferred to it by means of an assignment (a sale in which all or part of a copyright is transferred) or through a will or bankruptcy proceedings. Since title to a copyright can be transferred, you may have to search copyright records to determine the current owner of a work you want to use.

There are two ways to determine if copyright ownership has been transferred: by reviewing the copyright registration certificate issued by the Copyright Office, or by locating an assignment or transfer agreement. By reviewing the copyright registration certificate, you can find out who currently claims copyright and on what basis. For example, if a publisher has been assigned copyright to a work, it will file a copyright registration in its own name and indicate on the registration that it acquired copyright through a legal transfer. Also, many companies file the agreement that establishes the assignment, license, or transfer with the Copyright Office. For example, if an artist assigned his work to a company, the company could file the assignment document with the Copyright Office.

What Is a Termination of a Transfer?

Sometimes an author transfers copyright to someone and then later the author reacquires it through a process known as “terminating a transfer.” Copyright laws provide a method by which authors can reclaim rights after a number of years. This termination and reclamation process is complex, and the rules differ depending on when the work was first published. As a very general rule, transfer terminations occur between 28 and 56 years after the first publication. Terminations are filed with the Copyright Office and can be located by researching Copyright Office records.

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For more information on terminations of transfers, see Chapter 9 of The Copyright Handbook by attorney Stephen Fishman (Nolo).

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What If More Than One Person Owns a Copyright?

A common question is whom to ask for permission if several people jointly own a copyright. Co-ownership of copyright can occur in various ways. 
For example, if:

  • two people jointly create a work
  • the author transfers portions of the rights to different people 
(for example, giving half to each child), or
  • the author sells a portion of the copyright to someone and keeps 
the remainder.

Co-owners of copyright have a legal status known as “tenants in common.” When a co-owner dies, his or her share goes to his or her beneficiaries or heirs, not to the other co-owner. Each co‑owner has an independent right to use or non exclusively license the work—provided that he or she accounts to the other co‑owners for any profits. What this means for our purposes is that if you obtain the permission of any one co-owner, you can use the work. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, as explained in the next section.

You can determine whether there is co-ownership of a certain work by reviewing Copyright Office documents. For example, a registration for a song might indicate that a composer and a lyricist co-own a song.

When Must You Get Multiple Permissions?

There are several situations in which you must obtain permission from all the co-owners of a work instead of just one. All co-owners must consent to an assignment of the work (a transfer of copyright ownership) or to an exclusive license (an agreement granting rights solely to one person).

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Is There a Difference Between an Author and a Copyright Owner?

The author is the first owner of copyright. The author is either the creator of the work or the person who employs someone to create the work (see work-for-hire rules discussed above). Many authors do not retain their copyright ownership; they sell or transfer it to someone else in return for a lump sum payment or periodic payment known as a royalty. In this way, the author and copyright owner (sometimes referred to as “copyright claimant”) may be two different people. Even if you do not know the name of the current copyright owner, knowing the name of the author will help you find the owner in the Copyright Office records.

What If a Work Does Not Contain a Copyright Notice?

It’s common to start copyright research by examining the copyright notice. However, in some cases, the notice may be missing from the work. One reason you may not find a notice is because notice is not required on works first published after March 1, 1989. In addition, for works published prior to that date, notice is required only on visually perceptible copies—that is, copies that can be seen directly or with the aid of a device such as a film projector. Printed books, paintings, drawings, films, architecture, and computer programs are all visually perceptible. However, some works are not visually perceptible, such as a song on a compact disc. But copyright notice would be required if the song lyrics were printed on the album cover.

Another reason that a work may not include notice is that the owner failed to affix it, which may result in the loss of copyright. For works first published before 1978, for example, the absence of a copyright notice from a published copy generally indicates that the work is not protected by copyright. The absence of notice on works published between January 1, 1978 and March 1, 1989 may or may not result in the loss of copyright, depending on whether the owner corrected the error within five years of the publication and met other copyright law requirements.

What If There Is a Copyright Notice for an Entire Magazine but Not for the Specific Article You Want to Use?

If a story or a photograph is used in a magazine, there may be a copyright notice for the magazine but not for the specific story or photo that you want to use. That’s because the owners of magazines, anthologies, or greatest hits collections in which many different copyrighted works are collected (referred to as “collective works”) can use one copyright notice to protect all the works in the collection. This does not necessarily mean that the magazine owns the copyright in all of the works. It may or may not, depending on the contract with the author or photographer. Copyright Office research may not necessarily help you locate copyright information for these works because they may not be listed separately by title in the records. You may be better off contacting the owner of the collective work directly. The principles for contacting copyright owners are explained in the chapters dealing with specific media (text, artwork, photographs, and so on).

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