The question of who owns a copyright depends entirely on the specifics surrounding the creation of the material. Let’s look at a few common circumstances to shed some light on how copyright ownership is determined.
By default, the copyright is owned by the person who created the material.Under ordinary circumstances, an artist owns the copyright to his or her creations automatically—no registration necessary. Copyright ownership is automatic.
(There are, however, certain benefits to registering your copyright with the US Copyright Office; registration creates a legal record of the copyright ownership, optionally provides a public contact so that anyone in the world can contact you about your work, and allows for the possibility of receiving legal fees in addition to damages in a successful lawsuit.)
Employers own the copyrights to anything their employees create during the scope of employment.
An exception to the you-make-it-you-own-it copyright policy is how employment comes into the picture. Copyright law states that if an employee creates something during the scope of that employment, the resulting work is the intellectual property of the employer; the copyright, in this circumstance, is not automatically owned by the creator.
For example, the blog post you’re reading now is the intellectual property of Click&Copyright, because I am employed to write for them, and I do this writing on company time. If my employer decided to license out articles I wrote to another blog, it would be entirely their right, and I would not be legally entitled to any monetary compensation for this.
However, not every worker is considered an employee. According to the IRS’s information on who is considered an independent contractor, any material I might create on my own time, using my own resources, under my own direction, would be owned by me—regardless of who asked me to create it.
A Work For Hire agreement ensures that the person who commissioned something owns the copyright to it.
If I was not an employee, if I were simply a freelance blogger, I would own the articles I wrote even at the request of a company—unless the company and I had a Work For Hire agreement in place when they commissioned the article from me. The Work For Hire agreement would show that the company is hiring me to write an article, and that the resulting article is the intellectual property of the company.
A Work For Hire agreement is designed to be put in place before the project has begun, when the work is being commissioned. This avoids any confusion as to who should claim the rights to the work right from the get-go.
A Copyright Assignment Form can be used after a work has already been created to transfer ownership of the copyright.
In the situation above, the Work For Hire agreement would be put in place at the time that the work was commissioned. If there was no agreement signed, and I were not an employee of the company, I would own any articles I wrote for them.
A Copyright Assignment Form can be used after the fact, to transfer ownership of the articles from me to the company. This would release any hold that I have over the material, leaving the company free to do what they wish with it.
Click&Copyright can help you register your copyright, as well as provide you with a Work For Hire agreement, a Copyright Assignment Form, and many other intellectual property forms to help you manage your creative materials.