Joint Works (Co-Authorship)

Two or more people work together on a project, for example, a song consisting of music and lyrics, or a work of scholarship, or a screenplay. Who owns the copyright(s)?

When creators work together, intending to combine their contributions into a single work, they have created a joint work. The consequences of joint authorship are, as the phrase suggests, joint ownership of all of the rights comprised within the copyright. So, while the creators may not in fact have had a clear understanding of who will own the rights in the work on which they collaborated, the law will divide the ownership equally among the co-authors. That can mean, in the case of two co-authors, and absent an agreement to the contrary, a right to an accounting for 50 percent of the proceeds of the exploitation of a given work. As a result, it is a very good idea for the collaborators to work through their agreement, and, if they intend to split the proceeds unequally, to say so in a contract binding all the co-authors.

The participants’ relationship is not always clear, however, particularly when there is a big disparity among their contributions to the work. In these cases, courts tend to require proof that all the authors in fact intended for the work in question to be a joint work. For example, consider an editor and a writer who work together on a magazine article. Unless they both intended that the final work was to be a joint work, copyright will initially be owned entirely by the writer. This rule tends to give the alpha creator sole ownership of the copyright, absent explicit intent to the contrary. It tends to make participants like editors, dramaturges, consultants, and other beta creators unlikely to acquire joint ownership, in the absence of a written agreement or of evidence of intent to create a joint work.

As this discussion indicates, this is a particularly complex area of law, and the information on this site should not be taken as definitive for any individual situation.

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