Whenever authorship and ownership issues arise, the law of copyright indicates that an author is the one who created a body of work. This makes the author the sole owner of the body of work. While an author initially possesses sole ownership, there are various methods by which a publisher may obtain rights to the author's creative endeavors.

Some terms to be familiar with are "work made for hire" and "assignment of rights." Under a work-for-hire doctrine, a publisher will own all the rights to the creative body of work, including the copyright. Under an assignment of rights, an author will grant all or some of the rights to a publisher.

Joint Authorship Doctrine

Things get tricky when there is more than one author because the assignment of rights may cease being so obvious. In this case, a joint authorship doctrine may be needed. This allows rights to be shared, which is particularly important if the publisher is a co-author. A deliberate sharing of rights prevents an inadvertent loss of the publisher's ownership of rights.

When a body of work is created by more than one author, the Copyright Act allows for joint authorship. The goal of the Act is to merge the authors' contributions into inseparable parts of the whole. This allows the authors to be recognized as co-owners of the copyrighted material.

In the world of publishing, collaboration and co-authorship are common. You'll see this with co-writers, illustrators, ghostwriters, book packagers, or a body of work that includes copyrighted material from another artist.

Critical Joint Authorship Questions

With co-authorship, there are some critical questions that need to be addressed. They include:

  • Who is the author of the body of work that will be published?
  • Who owns the copyright to the body of work?
  • Who decides when, where, and how the work will be published?
  • Who receives the royalties?

Of course, you'll want to have all these matters resolved, in a written agreement, before any work commences. Although a joint authorship doctrine technically applies to the authors, it's also important to publishers because they become the author of a body of work that was created under "work made for hire" provisions. This means a publisher would be affected by a joint authorship doctrine if the publisher isn't the sole author of a body of work created under a "work made for hire" provision.

A Publisher's Grant of Rights

When a publisher isn't the sole author of a body of work, a situation may arise when the work commissioned by the publisher is a "work made for hire" agreement, but the publisher doesn't satisfy the requirements of the doctrine. If a problem like this occurs, the body of work could be owned by the author, exclusively.

That's why a publisher may want to obtain a grant of rights, including copyright ownership, to the body of work. In a situation like this, a publisher would have to prove co-authorship, if they were a collaborator.

An example of collaboration could be when an employee, or even a freelancer, adds copyrighted material to work made for hire. This may include illustrations from a staff artist or a freelance artist who created their illustrations under a work made for hire agreement that satisfies the Copyright Act.

Another example that would give way to joint authorship could occur if the body of work is created by employees of the publisher, but a portion of the work wasn't created under the scope of an employee's job description.

The Law of Copyright

If the work at hand qualifies within the Law of Copyright as joint authorship, the co-authors may allocate the duties and rights among themselves. But, a formal agreement isn't required between co-authors. Therefore, a legal relationship pertaining to co-authorship may occur, even in the absence of an intent to create a co-authorship.

If a co-authorship agreement is lacking, it will most likely be presumed that some of the principles still apply. In which case, the co-authors will have equal ownership of the work. This will be granted even if one co-author contributed more to the body of work than the other co-authors.

If you need help with authorship and ownership issues, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.