How to transfer copyright ownership

If you’re considering buying or selling the rights to a creative work, then it’s important to know how to transfer copyright ownership.

This is done via copyright assignment, whereby copyright ownership is transferred from one party to another.

A copyright assignment contract is used to make the process legally-binding and a matter of public record.

What are the rights of a copyright owner?

Copyright is an intellectual property right.

There are several federal and state laws regarding it—the most prevalent of which is the Copyright Act of 1976

Usually, the copyright holder of a creative work will be the original author. In the case of a work made for hire, the copyright owner will be the employer of the original author, who will likely hold exclusive rights to the work

When a work is the result of collaboration, there may be two or more copyright co-owners.

Copyright holders have several rights regarding protected work.

This allows copyright owners to make commercial gains from creative work in various ways, either through keeping the rights for themselves or selling or licensing the rights to others.

Reproduction rights

These give the copyright owner the rights to create copies of a protected work.

Distribution rights

The copyright owner retains the rights to sell copies of the original work to the general public or distribute them by other means.

Right to create adaptations

The right to prepare new works based on a protected work are held by the copyright owner.

These are known as derivative works.

Performance and display rights

The owner of the copyright retains the rights to perform or display a protected work in public.

Transfer of copyright: How is it done?

Transfer of copyright ownership is done via copyright assignment.

This allows a third party, known as the assignee, to assume copyright ownership from the original author of the work or assignor. 

Transfer of copyright is made using a copyright assignment contract, which is a written agreement of the transfer of property rights.

You may wish to use a copyright license agreement template.

An assignment of copyright should contain several key features.

It should be written and signed by the assignor or an authorized agent.

It should recognize the work for which copyright is being transferred and the kind of rights that are being transferred.

The duration of the copyright transfer, the effective date, and the regional extent of the transfer should also be documented.

The amount of consideration — or money, if any — being exchanged should be noted.

The new owner should provide some kind of consideration when copyright is being assigned, and contracts will often include the phrase “for other good and valuable consideration”. 

Courts have held that even a single dollar is an acceptable amount of consideration.

The contract is valid as long as both parties are receiving something in return, and the assignment agreement wasn’t made under duress.

It isn’t strictly necessary to perform copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office in cases of copyright assignment.

However, making it a matter of public record with the recording of transfers enables third parties to discern who owns the copyright of a work.

This is known as constructive notice, and it can help to prevent copyright infringement.

In the rare case that conflicting transfers have been made, the agreement that was made first takes precedence under the Copyright Act. 

In cases where the copyright has been licensed using a non-exclusive license, the original author retains copyright ownership or may license the same rights to multiple parties, and the non-exclusive licensee isn’t deemed a copyright owner.

Termination of transfers

The process of terminating a transfer gives an author who has transferred their copyright to another party a way to reacquire their rights. 

This can often be a complex process and can only be carried out after a certain number of years from the original transfer of copyright.

This is often somewhere between 28 and 56 years from when the copyrighted work was first published.

Transfer of copyright on death: What happens?

Copyright is usually transferred to any beneficiaries of the author upon their death, as with most personal property under intestate succession.

This will traditionally be a spouse or child of the author, but other beneficiaries can be named in a will.

If copyright has been previously transferred to another party, then the death of the original author doesn’t affect copyright in any way.

Instead, the license holder continues to own the rights granted to them until the copyright term expires or for as long as the agreement lasts.

Start with the right copyright transfer agreement

If you’re wondering how to transfer copyright ownership, the best way is to use the right copyright transfer agreement.

PandaDoc has a range of forms available that can simplify the process of transferring copyrights, including an IP assignment agreement template and copyright license agreement templates.

These templates will help you tick all the boxes when it comes to transferring copyright and protecting all parties in the agreement.