Who owns the copyright if we make a project together?  My clients often ask this question because many creative works are a team effort.  Whether it is a book, documentary, instruction manual, or advertising campaign, US Copyright law protects the ownership of these common business deliverables.  Therefore, businesses and freelancers must be aware of their copyright rights before co-creating any projects.

Why is Copyright Important?

Intellectual Property is one of the most valuable assets for businesses. It allows you to protect what makes you unique from competitors and knock-offs. It also gives you the rights to sell or license out your work, which is very important for businesses who make products or art. While trademarks protect individual elements of your business, copyright protects any tangible finished work you create. Copyright protects photographs, architecture, books, apps, movies, websites, programs, songs, paintings, and much more.

Copyright law can get complicated when more than one creator works on something. While this obviously happens frequently with art, it is also commonplace in business.

Let’s say that Homeroot, a small local business, hires Trianglesoft, a major virtual company, to make a website for them.  Homeroot pays for the design and creation of the website .  Homeroot provides some of the content on the website.  Trianglesoft provides the technical and artistic skill to design and create the website.  It also provides some website content.

So who owns the copyright to the website?

The answer may surprise you.  Without a written agreement about who owns the content, both Homeroot and Trianglesoft own the copyright.

Default Copyright Rule for Joint Works

The default rules of Joint Works apply in the absence of a written agreement concerning copyright ownership.

A Joint Work is defined as “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable of a unitary whole.”

The unified whole aspect is important. It means that even if you did your work on a project separate from everyone else, if the project was always meant to come together as one whole at the end, your work was Joint Work.

In Joint Work, everyone who contributed to the project owns an equal share of the copyright. If you write ten pages for a website and your coworker contributes ten photos, you have a Joint Work.  You both own equal stakes in the copyright under Joint Work default rules.

This creates problems for businesses because everyone with a copyright can license the work without consulting or getting permission from the other copyright owners.  Under the default law for Joint Works, all copyright owners of the Joint Work share equally in the profits.  Unfortunately, under the default law, the copyright owners cannot prevent each other from monetizing the work except through a written agreement.

For instance, if you created an app with the intention of it only being available on iPhones, one of your co-creators could put it on Android phones without getting your permission first.

Joint Work v. Collective Work

For those of you who have done some reading on copyright law, you may be asking how Joint Works are different from Collective Works.

A Joint Work, as we mentioned, is for a project that multiple people contributed to in order to create it.

If a project is made up of contributions from multiple people that were originally intended for another project, such as a compilation album of previously released songs benefiting a charity or a poetry anthology collecting previously written works from local artists, it is considered Collective Work.

So, who owns the copyright if we make a project together?

Joint Work only applies if the creators of a project did not make their own agreement in advance.

To return to our original scenario, under the default rule, both Trianglesoft and Homeroot own the copyright to the website.  However, if they could sign an agreement in which Trianglesoft gives up its copyright rights in return for payment for its services.  Alternatively, the agreement could give Homeroot a license to use the website platform and design and exclusive copyright in the website content.

At Concerto Law, we’ve made copyright agreements that go every which way.  It all depends on the client’s needs, wants, and bargaining power with the co-creator.  To discuss your situation and see which options are best for your business, contact Concerto Law today! Get in touch to discover legal solutions that break through the noise of bad internet advice.