Copyright Ownership: Who Owns What?

As a general rule, the copyright in a work is initially owned by the work’s creator, but this isn’t always the case.


What are the exceptions to the rule that the creator of a work owns the copyright?

Copyrights are generally owned by the people who create the works of expression, with some important exceptions:

  • If a work is created by an employee in the course of his or her employment, the employer owns the copyright.
  • If the work is created by an independent contractor and the independent contractor signs a written agreement stating that the work shall be “made for hire,” the commissioning person or organization owns the copyright only if the work is (1) a part of a larger literary work, such as an article in a magazine or a poem or story in an anthology; (2) part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, such as a screenplay; (3) a translation; (4) a supplementary work such as an afterword, an introduction, chart, editorial note, bibliography, appendix or index; (5) a compilation; (6) an instructional text; (7) a test or answer material for a test; or (8) an atlas. Works that don’t fall within one of these eight categories constitute works made for hire only if created by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.
  • If the creator has sold the entire copyright, the purchasing business or person becomes the copyright owner.

Who owns the copyright in a joint work?

When two or more authors prepare a work with the intent to combine their contributions into inseparable or interdependent parts, the work is considered joint work and the authors are considered joint copyright owners. The most common example of a joint work is when a book or article has two or more authors. However, if a book is written primarily by one author, but another author contributes a specific chapter to the book and is given credit for that chapter, then this probably wouldn’t be a joint work because the contributions aren’t inseparable or interdependent.

The U.S. Copyright Office considers joint copyright owners to have an equal right to register and enforce the copyright. Unless the joint owners make a written agreement to the contrary, each copyright owner has the right to commercially exploit the copyright, provided that the other copyright owners get an equal share of the proceeds.

Can two or more authors provide contributions to a single work without being considered joint authors for copyright purposes?

Yes. If at the time of creation, the authors did not intend their works to be part of an inseparable whole, the fact that their works are later put together does not create a joint work. Rather, the result is considered a collective work. In this case, each author owns a copyright in only the material he or she added to the finished product. For example, in the 1980s, Vladimir writes a famous novel full of complex literary allusions. In 2018, his publisher issues a student edition of the work with detailed annotations written by an English professor. The student edition is a collective work. Vladimir owns the copyright in the novel, but the professor owns the annotations.

What rights do copyright owners have under the Copyright Act?

Copyright grants a number of exclusive rights to copyright owners, including:

  • reproduction right — the right to make copies of a protected work
  • distribution right — the right to sell or otherwise distribute copies to the public
  • right to create adaptations (called derivative works) — the right to prepare new works based on the protected work, and
  • performance and display rights — the rights to perform a protected work (such as a stage play) or to display a work in public. This bundle of rights allows a copyright owner to be flexible when deciding how to realize a commercial gain from the underlying work; the owner may sell or license any of the rights.

Can a copyright owner transfer some or all of his specific rights?

Yes. When a copyright owner wishes to commercially exploit the work covered by the copyright, the owner typically transfers one or more of these rights to the person or entity who will be responsible for getting the work to markets, such as a book or software publisher. It is also common for the copyright owner to place some limitations on the exclusive rights being transferred. For example, the owner may limit the transfer to a specific period of time, allow the right to be exercised only in a specific part of the country or world, or require that the right is exercised only through certain media, such as hardcover books, audiotapes, magazines or computers.

If a copyright owner transfers all of the rights unconditionally (and retains nothing), it is generally termed an “assignment.” When only some of the rights associated with the copyright are transferred, it is known as a “license.” An exclusive license exists when the transferred rights can be exercised only by the owner of the license (the licensee), and no one else — including the person who granted the license (the licensor). If the license allows others (including the licensor) to exercise the same rights being transferred in the license, the license is said to be non-exclusive.

The U.S. Copyright Office allows buyers of exclusive and non-exclusive copyright rights to record the transfers in the U.S. Copyright Office. This helps to protect the buyers in case the original copyright owner later tries to transfer the same rights to another party.

Transfers of copyright ownership are unique in one respect. Authors or their heirs have the right to terminate any transfer of copyright ownership 35 to 40 years after it is made.

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