Copyright is a type of personal property right that grants the owner of the copyright control over the use and transfer of a copyrighted work (a piece of intellectual property). Copyright can be owned by one creator or multiple creators, an employer, someone who hired the work to be created, or to the entity that purchased the work.
Since copyright is a personal property right, state law applies to any transfer copyright ownership including inheritance, licensing, and assignment.
While the US Copyright Office does not require you to register your copyright, registration can be helpful in protecting your copyright against infringement and in proving your ownership. Like other personal property, copyrights can be transferred in total or in part to another party for various uses and reasons.
Copyright Owner Rights
The copyright owner is granted exclusive rights:
- Reproduction rights, which is the right to make copies of a copyrighted work
- Distribution rights, which is the right to sell or otherwise distribute copies to the public
- The right to create adaptations, which are new works based on the copyrighted work. These are sometimes called "derivative works."
- Performance and display rights
The copyright owner is the only entity who may exercise these rights with regard to a protected work, particularly for commercial gain, unless rights have been transferred.
How Copyright Transfer Works
Transfer of copyright for exclusive use requires a written agreement between the copyright owner and the entity who wishes to purchase the copyrights to a particular work. The owner can transfer the copyright in its entirety or only transfer some rights. If only certain rights are being transferred, they must be specified in the contract. The transfer of partial rights is termed a license.
For example, the copyright owner may transfer the rights to the reproduction and distribution of a protected work to a publisher while retaining the right to create adaptations.
Within the contract, the copyright owner can limit the duration, scope, and nature of the use of the work. The owner can set other conditions if desired.
- The right may be limited to a specific part of the country or world.
- The right may be limited to reproduction through specific media such as a magazine or audiotape.
The owner or the owner’s authorized agent must sign the contract for the transfer of exclusive rights to be valid. Copyright can also be transferred by conveyance, as a bequest in a will, or as part of an estate.
If the copyright has been registered with the US Copyright Office, you must also record the transfer with the Copyright Office.
Stock copyright transfer contracts are available, but you should consult an experienced intellectual property attorney to ensure you are fully protected. You may wish to add a transfer clause to your standard contract if you often create works you wish to leverage for commercial gain.
Terminating a Transfer of Copyright
Under certain circumstances, you may wish to terminate a transfer. You can use a written agreement and include the specific term or end date in the transfer portion of the agreement. Alternatively, you may decide to allow the transfer to terminate according to law.
Allowing a transfer to terminate according to the law can get tricky because changes in copyright law impact works that were copyrighted and transferred before implementation of a new law. The term can be from 28 to 56 years before the copyright reverts to the original owner, depending on when the copyright was received or transferred.
If the copyright was registered with the US Copyright Office, the termination of transfer must also be recorded.
Complications of Transferring Copyrights
Copyright transfer can get extremely complex. For example:
- Party A originates the copyright.
- Party B purchases or agrees to purchase the right to use the copyright as an assignment from Party A.
- Party C may then purchase a license (a type of transfer) from Party B’s assignment to temporarily use the copyright as well.
- Party A may still retain some right or ability to terminate the assignment or license if Parties B, C, or subsequent parties break any condition Party A placed on the copyright transfer.
Consider how tangled a copyright could become if many more parties were involved with a variety of licenses and transfers of particular copyrights are contracted on a single work.
Copyright law seems simple on the face of it, yet when the various rights bestowed by copyright begin to be awarded individually instead of in total, the assistance of an experienced intellectual property attorney is necessary.
Because a transfer is not an outright sale and there can be many years until termination and reversion to the original copyright owner, registering works for copyright with the US Copyright Office, and recording transfers and terminations can protect you from having your copyright invalidated or infringed.