Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Who Owns a Copyright?

I hope you all had a nice 4th of July holiday.  Over the next few days, I'm going to write about ownership of copyright.  There are several different situations that need to be considered. 

Generally, the initial owner of the copyright of a work is the author of the work.  The author can exploit the work himself, he can transfer part of his rights to another, or he can transfer all of his rights to another.  But who is the author?  Generally, the author is the person who conceives of the copyrightable expression and fixes it into a tangible form, or has someone else to fix into a tangible form.  One interesting situation is when a work is made for hire.  In that case, the one who hired the worker who actually made the work is considered the author.  I'll talk about works for hire in my next blog. 

Another interesting ownership question involves ownership in joint works.  A work prepared by two or more authors who intend that their work be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a single work is considered a joint work.  The emphasis is on the intent of the authors at the time each of them made his contribution to the work.  The different authors don't need to work at the same time, or even know each other, but must intend to contribute to a single unitary work at the time he makes his contribution. 

Joint authors generally each own equal undivided interests in the joint work.  For example, two joint authors would each own one-half interest in the entire work.  Each owner is entitled to exploit the copyright without seeking any permission from the other, but will have to share the profits.  Note that this situation differs from one where two authors each own different copyrights that are exploited together.  For example, if A owns the rights to the lyrics of a song, and B owns the rights to the music, and either exploits the combination without the other's permission, he will be liable for infringement of the other's copyright.

Note that the ownership by joint authors of equal shares can be varied by agreement of the parties.  If you have any questions about the copyright ownership, 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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