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Copyright: Ownership & Transfer

    The entire section of the statute can be found here.

    § 201. Ownership of copyright

    (a) Initial Ownership.— Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work.

    (b) Works Made for Hire.— In the case of a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.

    (c) Contributions to Collective Works.— Copyright in each separate contribution to a collective work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole, and vests initially in the author of the contribution. In the absence of an express transfer of the copyright or of any rights under it, the owner of copyright in the collective work is presumed to have acquired only the privilege of reproducing and distributing the contribution as part of that particular collective work, any revision of that collective work, and any later collective work in the same series.

    (d) Transfer of Ownership.—

    (1) The ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law, and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.

    (2) Any of the exclusive rights comprised in a copyright, including any subdivision of any of the rights specified by section 106, may be transferred as provided by clause (1) and owned separately. The owner of any particular exclusive right is entitled, to the extent of that right, to all of the protection and remedies accorded to the copyright owner by this title.

    (e) Involuntary Transfer.— When an individual author’s ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, has not previously been transferred voluntarily by that individual author, no action by any governmental body or other official or organization purporting to seize, expropriate, transfer, or exercise rights of ownership with respect to the copyright, or any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, shall be given effect under this title, except as provided under title 11.

    Comments: Both author, and for joint works co-author, are terms of art. However, neither is defined in the definitions section of the statute. A leading case with respect to co-authors and joint ownership is Aalmuhammed v. Spike Lee (9th Circuit 2000) . Joint authors must intend their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.
    There is a distinction between making a copyrightable contribution and being a joint author—a creative contribution will not suffice to establish authorship.

    Comments: To determine when a work is made "for hire," where there is no express agreement, the courts look to principles of agency and consider a host of factors including: (1) who has the right to control the way the product is made; (2) the skill required; (3) duration of the relationship between the parties; (4) where the work was being done; etc. It is best to avoid the uncertainty regarding how a court might determine the outcome (i.e. based on these factors) by having an express agreement as to who owns the copyright. This can become critical with respect to "contracted" work for website development. Many business people simply ignore the copyright issue until they are faced with a subsequent infringement suit (i.e. when they determine that despite having paid for the work, they may not necessarily own the copyright). A leading case here is Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (USSC 1989) .

    § 202. Ownership of copyright as distinct from ownership of material object

    Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object; nor, in the absence of an agreement, does transfer of ownership of a copyright or of any exclusive rights under a copyright convey property rights in any material object.

    Comments: The copyright is a separate intangible intellectual property right from the "thing" in which the right is embodied (e.g. separate from the book). While you often have a right to re-sell the "thing," this does not impact, in and of itself, the property right in the copyright (see First Sale Doctrine ).

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