What Is a “Joint Work” And Who Owns Its Copyright?

A “joint work” is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.  See 17 U.S.C. § 101.  A collaborative effort is only classified as a joint work if each author made independently copyrightable contributions to the work, and if the authors fully intended to be coauthors.

The phrase “independently copyrightable contributions” implies that if all of the authors of the alleged joint work were to take their own contributions away from the collaboration, each would be eligible to copyright their own work based on its own merits. For example, if two musicians worked together on a song in which one wrote the chorus and the other wrote the two verses, each would be entitled to a copyright on their own contribution to the song.

There are instances, however, where a person makes non-copyrightable contributions to a work but still claims to be a co-owner of a joint work. This generally occurs when someone contributes ideas or techniques to the success of a work, but these intangible contributions are ineligible to receive copyrights, and therefore, cannot be considered as part of a joint work.

For example, envision a friend of a screenwriter who suggests to the screenwriter that the hero should jump out of a helicopter instead of an airplane, as originally written by the screenwriter.  Even if the screenwriter incorporates that change, the friend is not going to be considered a coauthor of a joint work because the idea of jumping out of a helicopter, by itself, is not copyrightable.

While dividing the work into independently copyrightable contributions may be simple, the term “intent” ends up being the difficult focal point of the joint work discussion. The factors that courts use to determine the intent of the alleged coauthors are the decision-making authority exercised by each author, the way in which each author bills or credits themselves in relation to the work, and any written agreements involving all authors that characterize their interest in the joint work. For example, if two writers collaborate to write a play, and both share in the decision making abilities and the credit taken, they would both be seen as having intent. However, if one writer maintained all decision making abilities and was always credited as the sole author, then that writer clearly never intended to be a coauthor, and the play is therefore not a joint work.

Once a joint work has been established, each coauthor has the right to use or license the copyright without the consent of the other coauthors, and thus coauthors of a joint work are not liable to each other for copyright infringement. Their responsibilities to each other lie solely in dividing profits and joining each other in copyright infringement cases. Similarly, all coauthors stand to benefit equally from the joint work regardless of the equality of their contributions. It is for these reasons that it is extremely important to understand whether a collaborative work is a joint work. If you believe your copyright has been infringed on by a supposed “coauthor”, or you would like to copyright your work as a “joint work”, you should consult with our Intellectual Property Lawyers to learn more about your rights.