Who Owns Copyrights?

Who Owns Copyrights?

Immediately upon the creation of a work in a fixed form, a copyright exists for the author or creator of the work. An author or creator can register the copyright as soon as it is created or can wait until it is published. Registration may be made at any time within the life of the copyright.


Copyrights are a type of property, and like other types of property, they can be inherited, transferred, or sold. A copyright is an “intangible” property right, and like real property, can be transferred in whole or in part. 

The rights to a person's creative work pass to the beneficiaries of their will at death, or if they have no will, to their heirs at law. These people may register the copyright if it has not previously been registered and may sell or license it.

A person inheriting creative works from a deceased person should receive an assignment of copyright form from the person's estate. This paper transfers the rights in the work and will be necessary to register, license, or sell the copyrights.


In some states, property acquired during a marriage is considered community property, which means both spouses have a right to it. This means that if a person creates a copyrightable work during a marriage in one of those states, his or her spouse may claim an interest in that work.

Upon the death of an author, a spouse in any state may claim a right to a copyright that has been left by will to someone else under certain circumstances. The usual situation where a spouse can make a claim is where he or she has not been left a certain percentage of the estate (between thirty percent and fifty percent depending upon the state).

If you want to avoid the situation where your spouse is awarded your copyright, you should use a prenuptial agreement or a marital agreement.


Where a work is created by an employee in the scope of his or her employment, the employer is considered to be the author and owner of the copyright. In such “work for hire” situations, copyright protection vests upon creation not in the author/creator, but in the person or company requesting the author/creator to create the work. 


The creator of a copyrightable work may assign his or her rights in the work to another person. That person, the assignee of the creator, may claim and register the work.


Minors may claim a copyright in works they create. However, state laws usually restrict their business dealings and require a guardian to handle their business affairs.

Owners of the Work

The physical owner of a work (for example, a book, letter, painting, sculpture) usually does not have any right to the copyright unless he or she has an assignment of copyright from the creator. A person who inherits a work from someone who created it should receive an assignment of the copyright in the work from the estate.