Owning the rights to a particular work has many benefits, including the right to copy or republish the original as well as the right to manage any derivative works that are created using the source material.
For this reason, copyright ownership is often an important—and valuable—aspect of many people’s estates.
As you might imagine, the sale, licensing, or transfer of these rights can also be a lucrative affair for the copyright’s owner.
In this article, we’ll outline the different ways that a copyright owner can assign or transfer their rights to another party.
Note, however, that copyright assignment and transfer can be a complicated business, so it’s always wise to speak with an attorney before you begin to draft any licensing or transfer documents.
Assignment/Transfer of Copyright Ownership: The Basics
Whether or not you can give someone else rights to your content really comes down to two basic questions:
- Are copyrights transferable? Yes. Like most other forms of property, you can sell, gift, transfer, or lend your copyright rights to any other person or business, in whole or in part.
- Do I have to fill out any paperwork to transfer or license my rights? In general, no, you don’t need to fill out any government forms to transfer or license your rights. However, the transfer itself must be made in writing and signed by the owner of the rights that are being conveyed to be legally binding. Additionally, transferring a right on a nonexclusive basis does not require a written agreement.
Additionally, like all other forms of property, you can bequeath a copyright in your will, or otherwise pass your rights on to your family through your state’s intestate succession process.
Finally, note that you can record the transfer with the U.S. Copyright Office to leave a public record of the transfer, though such a record is not required for the transfer to be valid.
Different Ways to Convey Copyright Ownership and Rights
Provided you draft a strong legal document to manage the affair, it’s relatively fast and easy to assign, transfer, license, or otherwise convey a copyright from one party to another.
A copyright is essentially a bundle of rights granted by the law to the original creator of a work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
As a simple analogy, think of a glass jar filled with popsicle sticks with words like “distribute,” “perform,” and “reproduce” written on them.
Whenever you create a new work of art, you should imagine this jar of rights immediately appearing next to the work with the words “rights owned by me” written on it.
If you so choose, you can decide to do a number of things with your new art/jar pairing:
- You could decide to make a copy of the work of art and give it to a friend. Since you’re just giving them a copy for personal use, you get to keep all the rights in your popsicle stick jar.
- You have a friend who also likes making art. Because of this, you decide to give them a copy for personal use, as well as a note (license) that says they can make art based on your original piece. You get to keep all the rights in the popsicle stick jar, but your friend has your permission to use your work in limited circumstances.
- A small business contacts you and asks to buy the popsicle stick representing the right to distribute your work of art. You sell the popsicle stick to them, giving them exclusive rights to distribute your work for as long as they hold on to the popsicle stick. You still have your other rights, such as the right to make derivative works or display the work publicly, but cannot distribute the original piece since you no longer have access to that particular popsicle stick.
- A company contacts you and asks to buy your work of art and all of the rights associated with it. You sell both the original work and your popsicle stick jar to them. You are left with money, but no rights (popsicle sticks) relating to the original work.
Generally speaking, all of the above examples occur in one of two ways: either through a license or through an assignment.
Through a license, you can give another party permission to exercise certain otherwise exclusive rights while still retaining full ownership over the work in question.
For example, if I create a work of art such as a portrait of a cat, I could use a license to grant a business permission to distribute my work, provided I get a cut of their profits from the sale.
In this situation, I would retain my full ownership rights to my art while allowing another party to exercise my otherwise exclusive right to distribution as if they were the real owners of the work.
Licenses can be exclusive, granting all of the rights to the new party, or non-exclusive, granting only some of the rights.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for a creator to license one portion of their rights to one party while also licensing another portion of their rights to a third party (such as if an author licenses their distribution rights to their publisher while also setting up a license for a movie studio to make a derivative work).
Finally, note that, as with all matters involving the transfer or licensing of copyrights, all exclusive licensing deals must be in writing.
Non-exclusive deals don’t have to be in writing, but it’s still highly recommended for the parties to draw up a contract of some kind.
Unlike a license, in which the original owner retains their ownership rights to the work, an assignment is a more permanent, complete transfer or your rights to another party.
If you assign your copyright to another party, you will transfer away all of your rights to the work to the new owner, with one small exception.
As noted in the Copyright Act, any assignments or licenses made after January 1st, 1978 can be terminated approximately 35 years after the execution of the grant of copyright assignment or license.
This means that the original author (or their surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, executors, etc.) can terminate grants of copyright assignment and licenses, provided the case meets certain requirements.
Involuntary Copyright Assignment/Transfer
In most cases, copyright transfers occur voluntarily, usually as a part of some kind of sale or licensing agreement.
However, there are some cases where a copyright could be transferred involuntarily:
- Court-Ordered Property Transfer — Copyrights and the works they protect both count as property. As such, they are susceptible to the same legal mechanisms as all other kinds of property. Bankruptcy, divorce, and other forms of court-ordered property transfer are all examples of cases where you may involuntarily lose ownership of your copyright and associated works.
- Death — While not involuntary in the normal sense, it’s important to note that, at the time of your death, your copyright will transfer to another person as outlined in either your will or your home state’s intestacy laws. If you would like a particular individual to gain ownership of your intellectual property when you die, you must specifically say so in your will, otherwise they may run into complications depending on the facts of your case.
In general, it’s relatively easy to assign, transfer, or license your copyright to another party, provided you draft a strong legal document to manage the terms of the sale.
For this reason, it’s important to speak to an attorney if you’re planning on conveying your copyright to another party for any reason, as the strength of the sale, as well as the protections for the new copyright owner, hinge on the wording of your contract.