U.S. copyright law says that the "creator" of a work has certain exclusive rights, whether these works are novels, poems, movies, or something else. (See 17 U.S.C. § 106.) For example, the creator is legally allowed to reproduce the work, perform it, or display it. But what if no single person can be identified as the sole creator of the work, but was a joint effort between two or more people?
This is the case with so-called “joint works” and “collective works.” Each of these categories is treated somewhat differently under the Copyright Act of 1976. If you collaborate with others in producing creative works, it is important for you (and your collaborators) to understand your respective intellectual property rights.
The U.S. Copyright Act defines a joint work as one “prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.”
Basically, any intentional collaboration between two or more people who aim to combine their contributions into a unified work are considered joint copyright owners. A co-authored book or musical would be two of the most common examples of joint authorship resulting in a joint copyright.
According to 17 U.S.C. § 201(a), “authors of a joint work are co-owners of copyright in the work.” In other words, each of them is separately entitled to all the exclusive rights typically afforded to a single copyright owner. Each author is, for example, able to copy, perform, and display the work without liability for infringement.
The U.S. Copyright Office considers joint copyright owners to have an equal right to register and enforce the copyright.
Joint creators can also decide, by contract, that only one of the creators will retain the copyright. For example, if two people collaborate on a book, but one pays the other $10,000 in exchange for an assignment of that person’s copyright interest, such an arrangement is perfectly acceptable. Intellectual property, like tangible property, can be bought and sold.
The Copyright Act defines a collective work as one, "in which a number of contributions, constituting separate and independent works in themselves, are assembled into a collective whole.” It gives the examples of a periodical issue, an anthology, or an encyclopedia.
Basically, every one of these contributors gets his or her own copyright, which is different from the copyright for the entire volume or work.
As 17 U.S.C. § 201(c) puts it, copyright in each separate contribution to a collective work "is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole, and vests initially in the author of the contribution.” Unless there is a specific written transfer of the copyright, the owner of the copyright in the collective work “is presumed to have acquired only the privilege of reproducing and distributing the [individual contributions] as part of that particular collective work… and any later collective work in the same series.”
The key aspect of authorship in a collective work is the assembling of independent creative works (such as photographs, articles, and so on) into a unified new whole. For copyright purposes, that unified creation is its own protectable work. Unlike a joint work, where the contributions of many authors meld into a single creative work (such as a co-written book), the constituent elements of a collective work are easily separated (such as photographs in a collage). The copyright owner of those individual photos retains the rights to them individually, but the copyright owner of the collage controls the collective work.
As you've likely noticed, the creator of a joint work typically has far broader copyright protection than a contributor to a collective work. The former has an ownership interest in the full work, whereas the latter has only an ownership interest in his or her own piece of the larger collective pie.