Copyright Ownership and Rights

Sometimes, someone other than the creator of a work owns the copyright.

The creator of a copyrighted work does not always own the copyright. In some cases other persons or entities own the copyright. There are also rules governing copyright ownership when two or more people create the work. Finally, copyright owners can assign rights to the copyright to others, particularly for the purpose of marketing the protected work.

When Someone Other than the Creator Owns the Copyright

There are several exceptions to the general rule that the creator of a work owns the copyright to the work.

Work for Employer: If an employee creates a work in the course of his or her employment, the employer owns the copyright.

Work "Made for Hire": If an independent contractor creates a work which qualifies as a work "made for hire," then the hiring person or firm owns the copyright if the work is one of the following:

  • part of a larger literary work, such as an article in a magazine or a poem or story in an anthology,
  • part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, such as a screenplay
  • a translation,
  • a supplementary work such as an afterword, an introduction, chart, editorial note, bibliography, appendix, or index,
  • a compilation,
  • an instructional text,
  • a test, or answer material for a test, or
  • an atlas.

Works Sold to Another: If the creator sells the entire copyright to another person or business, that buyer becomes the copyright owner.

Copyright Ownership in Joint Works

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. 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.

Rights Belonging to the Copyright Owner

The Copyright Act of 1976 grants a number of exclusive rights to copyright owners, including the:

  • 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 -- the right to prepare new works based on the protected work (called derivative works), and
  • performance and display rights -- the rights to perform a protected work (such as a stageplay) or to display a work in public.

This bundle of rights allows a copyright owner to be flexible when deciding how to realize commercial gain from the underlying work; the owner may sell or license any of the rights.

Transfer of Copyright Owner's Rights

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 market, such as a book or software publisher.

When transferring copyright, it is common for a copyright owner to place some limitations on the 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 be exercised only through certain media, such as hardcover books, audiotapes, magazines, or computers.When only some of the rights associated with the copyright are transferred, it is known as a "license." For more information on licensing, including exclusive licensing, see Should You License or Assign Your Art?

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.

For a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute book on securing the use of copyrighted images, text, music and more, see Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online & Off, by Richard Stim (Nolo).

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