Who Owns and Holds the Rights to a Copyright

When might a copyright be owned by someone other than the creator?

The creator of a work—whether it be a poem or a painting or a song—normally has a copyright in that work, along with the various exclusive rights that copyright law provides. These exclusive rights, conferred by 17 U.S. Code § 106 of the Copyright Act of 1976, include the exclusive rights to reproduce, perform, and distribute the copyrighted work.

However, the creator of a copyrighted work does not always own the copyright. In some cases, other persons or entities own the copyright. In other cases, multiple parties can have shared copyright ownership if two or more people created 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 rule that the creator of a work owns the copyright to the work. The most common involve some sort of employment relationship or contractual assignment from the creator to the owner.

Work for employer: If an employee creates a work in the course of employment, the employer owns the copyright. For example, imagine that Sue is a graphic designer for a large museum. She creates invitations for the museum's galas, posters for the museum's shows, and designs for the museum's website. Even though Sue did all of this work herself using her own skills and creativity, it was her job. The museum likely owns the copyright to all of her designs (unless her employment contract specifically stated otherwise).

Work "made for hire": If an independent contractor creates a work that 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. Copyrights can be bought and sold in the United States, just like other property rights, such as real property or personal property. Thus, a photographer can sell the copyright to a photograph to a magazine for a lump sum.

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. These include:

  • reproduction rights: 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 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 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?

For a comprehensive guide to securing the use of copyrighted images, text, music and more, see Nolo's Getting Permission: Using and Licensing Protected Materials Online & Off, by Richard Stim.

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