Joint Work In Copyright / Joint Authorship

A brief discussion identifying the concept of a Joint Work under US Copyright Law

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What is a joint work in copyright law?

The Copyright Act defines a joint work as a work “prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. The contributors to a joint work are considered Joint Authors. Broken down, that is:

  • A work: A work of authorship (content)
  • Prepared by two or more authors: (authors contribute content)
  • With the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.

What is a “work of authorship” in copyright?

Per the US Copyright Act, works of authorship include the following categories:

  • (1) literary works;
  • (2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • (3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • (4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • (5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • (6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • (7) sound recordings; and
  • (8) architectural works.

What is an author under copyright law?

The United States Supreme Court has construed “author” to mean she “to whom anything owes its origin; originator, maker.” An author, then, is the person who originates the work by contributing at least a minimal degree of expression to its creation.

  • An “author” is the person “to whom anything owes its origin; originator, maker.”

Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53, 4 S. Ct. 279, 28 L. Ed. 349 (1884).

What Intent is required to create a Joint Work under copyright law?

The touchstone for analysis of joint authorship of a joint work “is the intention at the time the [work] is done that the parts be absorbed or combined into an integrated unit.”

  • Intent …
  • At the time the work of authorship is created …
  • That the parts be absorbed or combined into an integrated unit …

A work of authorship is considered a joint work “if the authors collaborated with each other, or if each of the authors prepared his or her contribution with the knowledge and intention that it would be merged with the contributions of other authors as ‘inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.’” The key requirement “is the intention, at the time the writing is done, that the parts be absorbed or combined into an integrated unit.” Copyright Office Compendium 505.1

Joint Authors Contribute Inseparable or Interdependent Parts of a Unitary Whole for a Joint Work?

  • Inseparable: if the work contains a single form of authorship
  • Interdependent: if the work contains multiple forms of authorship
  • Unitary Whole: the finished product

A contribution to a joint work is considered “inseparable” if the work contains a single form of authorship, such as a novel or painting, and it is considered “interdependent” if the work contains multiple forms of authorship, such as motion picture, opera, or the music and lyrics of a song.

Copyright Office Compendium 505.1

Who Owns Rights in Copyright to a Joint Work?

Without (1) an agreement to the contrary or (2) Work For Hire Status:

The authors of a joint work are co-owners of copyright in the work. 17 U.S.C. § 201(a).

What Rights Do Joint Authors of a Joint Work Have Under Copyright Law?

  • Each joint author has the RIGHT TO USE or to LICENSE the work as he or she wishes
  • Each joint author has the OBLIGATION TO ACCOUNT to the other joint owner FOR ANY PROFITS that are made

Joint authorship entitles the co-authors to equal undivided interests in the whole work — in other words, each joint author has the right to use or to license the work as he or she wishes, subject only to the obligation to account to the other joint owner for any profits that are made. See 17 U.S.C. § 201(a); Childress, 945 F.2d at 508; Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 270 U.S. App. D.C. 26, 846 F.2d 1485, 1498 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (“Joint authors co-owning copyright in a work are deemed to be tenants in common, with each having an independent right to use or license the copyright, subject only to a duty to account to the other co-owner for any profits earned thereby.”), aff’d without consideration on this point, 490 U.S. 730 (1989).

Thomson v. Larson, 147 F.3d 195, 199 (2d Cir. 1998)

How to Avoid Joint Work Copyright Ownership Issues.

  • Use an agreement that assigns all copyright to one party.
  • Use the agreement before the work is created.

Disclaimer:  This information is for educational purposes, and is not intended to be legal advice. Each case turns on its own facts.  Please consult with an experienced trademark attorney

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