When you create intellectual property such as a book, poem, song, photograph, or painting, copyright laws give you the right to claim ownership of your creative work. Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office allows others to find out who owns the rights to your creation. As a copyright owner, you can also transfer, or assign, your copyright, as long as you follow the correct procedure.
Assignment of copyright
Copyright assignment permits a third party, known as the assignee, to take ownership of the copyright from the owner, or assignor. The assignment must be done in writing to be valid. Although notarization isn't required, it's a good idea to have someone witness the assignor and assignee signing and dating the agreement. Transfer of ownership usually involves monetary exchange, although that's not a requirement.
Registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office isn't a requirement for valid ownership, even in cases of copyright assignment. However, registering provides a way for third parties to discern who owns the copyright. Because you don't have to file the transfer, a short-form assignment contract is sufficient for filing. This document usually contains only limited details of the work you're assigning, including the copyright number (if applicable), the signatures of both parties, the signature of a witness if desired, and the date of the assignment.
Copyright assignment contract
Just like in any other contract, a copyright assignment should contain certain information, such as the amount of consideration, or money, being exchanged. When assigning your copyright, the other party should provide some amount of consideration. Contracts usually include the language “for other good and valuable consideration," and courts have held that even one dollar is acceptable. As long as each party to the contract is getting something in return and the contract is not made under duress or pressure, the contract is valid.
Likewise, as the owner of the copyright, you have the right to assign all or part of it. If you assign your entire copyright to the other party, you are giving up all of your rights to your own copyright. In the case of a book, for example, assigning only part of your copyright could mean:
- Assigning it to one party for use as a movie and to another for use as a television show
- Assigning one party the original version and another party a translated version
- Assigning rights to different types of books, such as an audiobook, a traditional print book, and an e-book
- A partial assignment for a limited duration, if you specify such in your agreement
Protecting the creator of the intellectual property
Copyright laws protect you in case your work of intellectual property becomes famous or is worth money later on. While you can't get your copyright back for many years after your assignment unless the new owner consents otherwise, current copyright law allows you to terminate your copyright assignment after 35 years.
For example, songwriters who assigned their copyright to what are now legendary songs from the 1960s or 1970s can now recover the copyright to their songs, many of which have increased in value due to their use in commercials and television shows. The writer of "YMCA," a member of the Village People, successfully recovered his copyright by invoking his termination rights after the 35-year period.
Works for hire and copyright
If you're a freelancer who creates a work such as a poetry collection, you own the copyright of the poetry book and can assign the copyright, if you wish. If, however, you're employed by someone to write poems, either as an employee or as an independent contractor under their direction, your creation is sometimes called a work for hire.
Creation of intellectual property under a work-for-hire contract means that you don't own the copyright. Instead, whoever hired you owns it, and unless that person gives you permission to purchase or own the copyright, you cannot transfer it to anyone else.
The more control a client has over how and when you're creating the intellectual property, the more likely you're regarded as an employee rather than an independent contractor. An employer-employee relationship generally assures that the employer owns the copyright. If, on the other hand, you're an independent contractor and have more creative control over your project than an employee would have, then you're the copyright owner.
Because intellectual property is an extremely specialized area of the law, it's recommended that you use a copyright attorney or similar intellectual property specialist to assist in any assignments. You can start protecting your creative interests by registering your copyright.