Joint Authorship and Copyright

By Laura Payet

Joint Authorship and Copyright

By Laura Payet

Copyright is the legal protection enjoyed by writers, painters, composers, software developers, and others in their original creative works. Copyright attaches to any original work of authorship once it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. For example, copyright protects novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculpture, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. In general, the originator of any creative work, known in copyright law as the author, owns the copyright in that work. When two or more authors create a copyrightable work together, they share the copyright as joint authors.

Woman with braids and bangs sitting cross-legged in studio surrounded by paintings

Rights of Copyright Holders

Copyright confers exclusive rights on copyright holders, including:

  • The right to reproduce the work and sell or otherwise distribute copies
  • The right to perform or display the work publicly
  • The right to prepare new works based on the protected work, called derivative works
  • The right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights through licensing agreements

Although copyright exists from the moment of a work's creation, the author must register her copyright with the U. S. Copyright Office before she can enforce her rights through a lawsuit. Some online legal service providers offer assistance with the registration process.

Joint Authors

Two or more authors who create a work together intending to combine their contributions into an interdependent and inseparable whole are joint authors under copyright law. Each author's contribution must be material to the work and individually copyrightable. For example, if a writer and a photographer collaborate on a book of photographs that includes essays about those photos, they would be considered joint authors. On the other hand, if one person suggests an idea that leads another to write a song or a poem, only the person who actually wrote the song or poem would be its author.

Collective Works

When multiple authors contribute to a work without intending to create an interdependent whole, as with a periodical or anthology, the result is a collective rather than a collaborative work. In this case, the authors are not joint authors of the whole work. Rather, each author retains the copyright to his or her individual contribution. The publisher of the entire work may be entitled to a copyright in the work as a whole if the collection and organization of the works display sufficient creativity but would not have a copyright in each separate piece.

Rights of Joint Authors

Joint authors share the same rights as single copyright holders. Each joint copyright owner has the right to reproduce, perform, and distribute the work and to create derivative works without permission from the other copyright holders. However, because each copyright holder owns an undivided share in the copyright, each must share any profits from exploiting the work with the others equally, unless there is a written agreement to the contrary. In addition, each joint copyright holder has the right to grant a nonexclusive license to third parties to reproduce and distribute the work; again, any value that one author gains from a license must be shared equally with all other authors.

Copyright Duration

As a general rule, works created after January 1, 1978, are copyright protected for the author's life plus an additional 70 years. For joint authors, copyright protection extends 70 years beyond the death of the last living author.

Avoiding Conflicts Among Joint Authors

Because each joint author can license the work without the others' consent, conflicts can arise among them about appropriate licensing and distribution. Another area ripe for conflict is income distribution, which under the law must be equal among all authors regardless of efforts or circumstances. But joint authors can agree to a different distribution of rights and obligations among them if they do so in writing. For instance, the parties can agree to a different income distribution or an exclusive licensing agreement with one licensee. They can establish an approval process for licensing or for transferring rights. A written contract among joint authors can eliminate the potential for disagreement by establishing each author's compensation, responsibilities, and control over the work before conflicts arise.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.