Have you ever collaborated with someone to create an artistic work? If so, maybe it has crossed your mind to wonder who owns the copyright.
Here's the basic rule for joint ownership of copyrights:
- When 2 or more people
- contribute copyrightable material and
- mutually intend to create a joint work (i.e., they intend that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a whole)
- the work is a "joint work" and the contributors are "joint authors."
It is absolutely crucial that each person expect their contributions to be merged into a whole and that they intend to be joint owners.
Note that a work can be considered a "joint work" even in the absence of a written agreement between the authors.
So what does it mean to be a "joint author"?
Joint authors are co-owners of the copyright in the joint work.
When I say "co-owners," I do not mean that one author owns some particular part of the work and another author owns another part.
I am referring to the copyright in the work, and all authors own an "undivided interest" in the entire copyright.
Thus, all joint authors are entitled to all the rights of authorship that an individual author would be entitled to. The U.S. Copyright Office considers joint authors to have an equal right to register and enforce the copyright.
Can anyone be a joint author?
No. If you want to be a joint author, you cannot just sit on the sidelines making armchair suggestions.
Additionally, exercising control and discretion as the work is created or having final approval rights over the work alone will usually not make you a joint author.
Your contribution to the joint work must in and of itself be copyrightable. This means that it must be an original (not copied) contribution that is fixed in some tangible form.
What if one joint author contributes more than the other joint authors?
It does not matter. As long as all authors contribute copyrightable material and mutually intend a joint work - the work is considered a joint work. All joint authors own an equal share in the work.
What if each joint author contributes distinctly separate parts?
It does not matter. As long as the distinct parts come together in an inseparable or interdependent whole and the authors intend a joint work - the work is considered a joint work. All joint authors own an "undivided interest" in the entire work.
How does licensing work in joint authorship situations?
Unless they have a written agreement to the contrary, any joint author (without the permission of the other joint authors) can grant non-exclusive licenses to third parties to exploit the work - provided that the other joint authors get an equal share of the licensing proceeds.
However, no single joint author can give a third party an exclusive copyright license. Licenses for joint works are non-exclusive - unless all joint authors agree to exclusivity.
Are joint authors entitled to a share of licensing fees?
Yes, unless a written agreement between them says otherwise. Along with the right of each joint author to issue non-exclusive licenses for the work, each joint author has a duty to account to the other joint authors for any profits obtained from licensing.
Can 1 joint author assign his or her rights in the work?
Yes. A joint author can assign his or her ownership share in the work to a third party or leave it to an heir in a will. However, a single joint author cannot assign the entire copyright to a third party without the explicit written permission of the other joint authors.
What about authorship credit?
If the joint work is ever published, each joint author is entitled to equal authorship credit - unless a signed, written agreement says otherwise.
The most common example of a joint work is a book or article with 2 or more authors.
However, if the book is written mostly by 1 author, with another author contributing a single chapter for which they are given independent credit, this probably would not be classified as a joint work.
The authors' contributions are not inseparable or interdependent, and the fact that the chapter author only received credit for the chapter would be evidence that there was no intent for joint authorship of the entire book.
So - can 2 or more authors contribute to a work without being considered joint authors?
At this point, I hope your answer is clearly "yes."
If at the time of creation, the authors did not intend their works to be part of an inseparable whole or did not intend to be joint authors, the fact that their works are later put together does not create a joint work.
Rather, the result is considered a "collective work." Each author owns a copyright only in what they contributed to the finished product.
Consider the following example from the Stanford University Copyright & Fair Use website:
HYPO: In the 1950s, Vladimir writes a famous novel full of complex literary allusions. In the 1980s, his publisher issues a student edition of the work with detailed annotations written by an English professor. The student edition is a collective work. Vladimir owns the copyright in the novel, but the professor owns the annotations.
Click here to read the previous article - Copyright: Authorship Basics
edited by Howie Cockrill, Esq.