Authors, composers and artists of all types routinely reach new creative heights when they combine their talents. U.S. copyright law protects authors who collaborate to create writings and other works. Article I of the Constitution provides the basis for copyright protection. Congress sets the specific rules for copyrights, including those concerning renewals. The U.S. Copyright Office administers the rules and civil courts provide additional interpretation.
Joint Works Defined
If you collaborate with one or more persons to write a song, screenplay, novel or other work, copyright law may consider your finished product a joint work. Courts will first look to see if, at the time you created the work, you intended to merge your contributions “into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole,” as the Copyright Act requires. If the product is not made on behalf of an employer, each author owns rights to the entire piece. Protection for a joint work begins as soon as the authors put the work in writing. A coauthor may renew a joint work even if one or more of the other authors has died.
If a work by multiple authors does not meet the criteria for joint works, it probably qualifies as a collective work instead. A collective work is one in which "a number of contributions, constituting separate and independent works in themselves, are assembled into a collective whole." With such works, contributors may seek copyright protection for their portions as independent works. If the part of the work that an author contributes does not have any meaning on its own, it is not a separate work. If initially the work was a contribution to a periodical, serial or other composite work, the author may apply to renew her contribution separate from the collective work.
Different renewal rules apply to existing copyrights today because of changes in the duration of copyright protection. For works created between 1964 and 1977, Congress granted an automatic renewal of 67 years to the initial term of 28 years. Although renewal is automatic, the Copyright Office will issue a certificate of renewal only when one of the authors completes a renewal application and pays the fee. Renewal registration is important to meet the standard for damages, specified by the copyright laws, and attorney’s fees. For works created after January 1, 1978, the Copyright Act sets the duration of a copyright term as the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years.
If a copyright expires, it falls into the public domain where anyone may use it. You may not renew a work once it is in the public domain. All works created in the U.S. before 1922 are in the public domain. For works created from 1923 through 1963, authors were required to renew the copyright protection; if they did not, the copyrights expired at the end of the 28th year of the initial copyright terms. For works created between 1964 and 1977, Congress automatically granted copyright holders a second term. Authors do not have to file for renewal to keep their works out of the public domain before the second term expires. Works created after 1977 will not expire before 2048.