Sunday, July 24, 2011

Copyright in Collective Works

So, say you and your four best friends are all poets.  You each write a few poems.  Among your poems is a limerick in which you extoll the virtues of drinking beer.  It's a really nice limerick.  All of the poems are really nice.  Your friend, Cole Lecter, gathers all the poems together and publishes them in a collection.  So, who owns the copywrite?

Well, fortunately, the drafters of the U.S. Copyright Act thought about this situation.  Section 201(c) of the Copyright Act provides that
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. In the absence of an express transfer of the copyright or of any rights under it, the owner of copyright in the collective work is presumed to have acquired only the privilege of reproducing and distributing the contribution as part of that particular collective work, any revision of that collective work, and any later collective work in the same series.
With this provision, it is clear that the presumption is that each of the contributors retain the copyright in his own works of authorship.  Thus, your limerick belongs to you.  What Cole has in this case (unless the parties agree otherwise) is the privilege to reproduce and distribute the individual works as part of his collection.  Cole does own the copyright to any work of his own authorship that is included in the collection.  For example, Cole's expression or contribution might include the selection and arrangement of the separate works, or the preface that he wrote himself. 

Is it possible for copyright rights in a single work to be owned by different folks?  Next time, we'll talk about that.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about copyright law, email us or post them on the blog.  The email is  We also have a free pamphlet discussing copyright law as it effects small businesses and individuals.

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