A copyright is a valuable property right that can be transferred or assigned, in whole or in part, to another party for payment. The rights transferred can either be exclusive or non-exclusive; however, to be effective, an exclusive transfer of a copyright must be in writing. The U.S. Copyright Office will record the document evidencing the exclusive transfer. Under certain conditions, the copyright owner can terminate the transfer.
All original works of authorship receive copyright protection as soon as they are fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as writing. A copyright does not require registration with the U.S. Copyright Office; however, registered copyrights have greater advantages than unregistered copyrights. For example, registration creates a public record of the copyright; registration is required before suing in court for infringement; and registration provides evidential advantages at an infringement trial, as well as the potential for greater damages.
A copyright owner can transfer all rights to his work or make a partial transfer of his rights. Copyright transfers are typically made by contract. Non-exclusive transfers -- "non-exclusive" meaning that you can also make the same transfer to others -- do not need to be in writing. A transfer cannot be exclusive unless it is in writing and signed by the copyright owner. The copyright owner can also transfer his copyright through his will to his beneficiaries or, if the copyright owner dies without a will, the copyright will transfer to the owner's legal heirs according to the laws of the state where he resided.
Copyright transfers are effective without being recorded with the U.S. Copyright Office, although transfer documents are accepted for recording by the office if submitted in proper format. An acceptable document must bear an original signature, contain all terms of the transfer, and be legible. A copy may be submitted in lieu of the original if it is accompanied by a sworn certification that the copy is an accurate reproduction of the original. The basic fee for recording a transfer document is $105, as of January 2012, for a single title. An advantage to recording the transfer document is that it gives the public constructive notice of the document. This means that no one can claim that he did not know the copyright was transferred.
The Copyright Act gives every copyright owner the right to terminate a transfer of his copyright, which effectively gives him a second chance to benefit from his copyright, should it significantly increase in value. The termination right can be exercised during a five-year period of time which begins either: 35 years from the date of a transfer made on or after Jan. 1, 1978; or, if the transfer was made before that date, 56 years from the date the copyright was originally established. Regardless of the terms or provisions used in the transfer document, the owner cannot be prohibited from exercising his right to terminate the transfer under the Copyright Act. The copyright owner's heirs can also exercise this right within the same time parameters.