Transferring Your Copyright
There may be a time when you wish to transfer your copyright rights to another. Transferring such rights usually takes place through a license or assignment.
A copyright in a work gives its author a bundle of rights, including the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and make derivative works. The granting of permission to a third party to exercise these different rights is done through a license. In many cases, each of these rights can be licensed separately.
With a license, the owner retains its ownership of the rights involved, but allows another party to exercise some or all of those rights. Licenses can be exclusive, such as if you sell all rights to your book to a publisher, or non-exclusive, such as if you sell hardcover rights to one publisher, paperback rights to another, and movie rights to a producer.
Example: You can license the first right to publish an article to one magazine, and then license the right to publish it later to other magazines. You can license the right to translate it into Spanish for the U.S. market to one publisher and license the right to the Spanish version for South America to another publisher.
While licenses allow you to retain ownership rights in your copyright, an assignment is like the sale of personal property, where ownership is conveyed in its entirety.
Basically, an assignment of a copyright transfers all rights to the work forever, but there is one exception. Because the drafters of the Copyright Act wanted to protect authors from their own bad decisions, they included a provision that gives authors who transfer their copyrights the right to take them back after a specified number of years. If the transfer was made in or after 1978, that period would be 35 years from the assignment. If the transfer was made earlier, that period would be 56 years from the date the copyright was originally secured. This means that for recent works, even if you sold all rights to it, you can come back thirty five years later and demand them back. To make sure authors are not talked out of this right, it is not possible to legally waive it. No matter what you sign or agree to, you can terminate the agreement and get the rights back.
If you are a business buying copyrights, you must keep this in mind if you have a long term plan for the work.
Example: A company like Disney, which keeps its works alive for decades, would always want to have the work created by employees rather than independent artists since they would not want to lose the rights after spending millions of dollars building up the value of the work.
Besides voluntary licenses and assignments, copyrights can be transferred by a court such as in a bankruptcy or divorce. They can also be transferred by a will upon a person's death. If a person does not have a will, they would be transferred to whomever the state laws give the author's property.
Whenever a copyright is transferred the transfer should be registered with the copyright office. This is done by sending a copy of the written instrument (with original signatures or a certified copy) to the Copyright Office.
Revoking a Copyright
An author who has assigned his or her copyright has a right to revoke the assignment and take the rights back under certain circumstances.
The amendments to the Copyright Act in 1978 and 1998 added a total of thirty-nine more years to the life of most copyrights. Rather than give this bonus to the purchasers of the rights, Congress allowed the original creators of the works to have those rights returned to them.
Authors of pre-1978 works can have the copyright to their works returned to them during the five-year period beginning seventy-six years from the date the work was first published. For more information, see the Copyright Office's Circular 96, section 201.10.
The revocation can be exercised by the author or if he or she is dead, by his or her spouse or children. If he or she has no surviving spouse or child, then the right to revoke is lost. It cannot be sold or given by will.
The law is somewhat complicated in this area. If you have transferred a valuable copyright, you should consult with a copyright attorney about your best options.