Who Owns a Copyright?

As a general rule, only the creator of an original work can formally register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, creators of original work are given certain exclusive rights over it. That original work might be a song, a novel, or a painting. Countless other types of creations exist, across countless types of media. But who is the actual "owner" of the copyright in a work?

As a broad rule, only the creator of an original work can formally register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, the federal agency charged with overseeing copyright registration and management. This means that if you draw a picture, write a poem, or create a video, you are the person who would be able to register its copyright.

There are three commonly claimed exceptions to this, for:

  • works made in the context of employment or for hire
  • works that have been jointly created, and
  • works that have had their rights transferred to another person or entity.

Ownership of Works Made for Hire

First, consider works made in the context of employment or that you were hired to create. Typically, if you create a work in the context of your employment, your employer—and not you—is the owner of the intellectual property rights.

This makes some sense. After all, you are being compensated, in whole or in part, for your creative output. It stands to reason that your employer should have the benefit of its bargain and own that output.

For example, if you created a video in the context of your work for an advertising agency, that agency would control the rights to the video. You could not claim an independent copyright in it.

This is equally true if you are an independent contractor hired by someone to make a specific work (known as a "work for hire").

Ownership of Works Created Jointly

A single individual is not always the sole creator of a work. A song, for example, often has one lyricist and one musician. A book might have two (or three, or four...) authors. For a movie, dozens of individuals might have played a creative role in creating the finished product.

In such situations, there will be "joint ownership" of the copyright—that is, the Copyright Office will list each creator as an equal owner of the right. The authors of a joint work are co-owners of the copyright, unless there is an agreement to the contrary.

Often in situations like these, the owners will negotiate with one another and sign a contract to clarify their rights. For example, the contract might specify, if one co-creator wants to license the work, and one does not, how would that dispute be resolved? If there is a sale of the work, how would profits be divided? These sorts of issues can be determined ahead of time, by written agreement, to avoid doubt.

Ownership of Transferred Works

The creator of a work might not be the person who owns the copyright if that copyright has been transferred.

If, for example, you take a photograph, but then agree to sell the rights in it to a third party, that individual now owns the copyright.

Copyright is freely transferable, just like ownership in any other form of property (such as a handbag, house, or car). Like those pieces of property, copyrights can be bought and sold on the open market.

Mere ownership of an object such as a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy does not, however, give the possessor the copyright. The law provides that ownership of a single copy does not automatically transfer rights in the copyright. A written agreement is required to formalize transfer of the intellectual property rights.

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