Does the Creator of a Copyrighted Work Always Own the Copyright?

A copyright is perhaps the greatest legal method of ensuring that you will receive credit for the work you created. A copyright is the legal term used for the rights given to the owner to reproduce, distribute, display, and create adaptations of a protected work. A few types of works that can be protected by copyright are literary works (for example novels, poems, articles, and plays), computer programs, films, musical compositions, paintings, photographs, and architecture. It is important to note that a copyright only protects the tangible form of the work, not the concepts, ideas, and techniques that form the work.

It would seem logical to believe that whoever created the work should have the first option to copyright the work and should also be the owner of the copyright. Unfortunately, that is not always the case as there are certain circumstances under the Copyright Act of 1976 in which the creator of the work does not retain ownership of the copyright. The first, and likely most common of this is when an employee creates a work within the scope of his or her employment. In this case, if the work ends up receiving a copyright, the ownership of the copyright will belong to employer.

A more complicated scenario is if an independent contractor creates a work for someone and that work is then copyrighted. If an independent contractor agrees to create a work that qualifies as a work that is “made for hire”, then the employer who hires the person or company owns the copyright and the rights associated with it. A created work is classified as being “made for hire” if it falls under one of the following categories: a contribution to a collective work (for example an article in a magazine), a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, a translation, a supplementary work, a compilation, an instructional text, a test or answer materials for a test, or an atlas. It is important to note that just because a work falls under one of these categories, that does not immediately give ownership to the employer of the independent contract. In order for the employer to claim ownership of the copyright, both parties must expressly agree in a writing signed by them that the work is made for hire.

Knowing who owns the copyright to a work is an integral part of understanding who has the right to distribute, reproduce, adapt, and display it. If you believe someone is wrongfully claiming to own your copyright, or you would like to copyright a work of yours, you should consult an employment attorney to learn your rights.