Who Owns a Copyright?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed December 23, 2016
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Generally, only the author of a work can claim copyright. Once the work is completed in "fixed" form (e.g. a story written down on paper, a computer program saved on a disk, a song recorded on tape), the copyright becomes the property of the creating author. Joint authors of a work are co-owners of the copyright unless there is an agreement to the contrary.
A work created in fixed form is automatically protected by copyright. The author immediately owns the copyright in the work and only he or she enjoys certain rights, including the right to reproduce or redistribute the work, or to transfer or license such rights to others.
In the case of works made for hire, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author. Section 101 of the copyright law defines a "work made for hire" as a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment. In the case where an independent contractor signs a written agreement stating that the work shall be "made for hire," the employer or hiring person or firm will own a work made for hire 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.
For collective works, or works that are comprised of several independent works, such as a magazine or encyclopedia, the authors of each independent work hold a copyright for each contribution. There can also exist distinct copyright protection for the collective work as a whole since creativity is involved in selecting the individual works and compiling them.
It is also important to note that mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy does not give the possessor the copyright to the work.
Also, minors may claim copyright, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors. For information on relevant state laws, you should consult an attorney for assistance.
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