Joint Authorship & Copyright

By Cindy Hill

Copyright is the legal protection afforded to creators of original works like writings, paintings, or musical compositions. Copyright arises when a creative idea is fixed in a tangible medium, such as recording a melody or sketching a painting. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office allows copyright holders to sue people who infringe on their copyrights. When two people work together to create a copyrightable work, they share that copyright as joint authors.

Rights of Copyright Holders

A copyright holder has the exclusive legal right to copy, distribute, display or publicly perform her copyrighted work. There are limited rights of fair use, reserved by law to people other than the copyright holder, to reference a copyrighted work for purposes of academic scholarship or literary criticism. The copyright holder is usually the original creator of the work, but under some circumstances, the copyright may be owned by the creator's employer. Only the copyright holder has the right to license use of the copyrighted work to others or transfer the copyright.

Joint Authorship

Copyright law refers to the creators of copyrightable works as "authors," even if their creation is a work of art or music rather than literature. When two or more people create a copyrightable work together, they share the copyright as joint authors. Joint authors legally own an undivided share of the copyright, with each joint author owning an equal proportion of the copyright. Each joint author can transfer their ownership portion of the copyright and sell or grant the non-exclusive right to use the copyrightable work to others, without permission from the other joint author. Joint authors can agree to a disproportionate division of the copyright ownership, but this agreement must be in writing and signed.

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Joint authors are not entitled to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement against their fellow joint authors. Absent a written, signed agreement to the contrary, two joint authors each own a 50 percent share of the copyright in their joint work, and are entitled to 50 percent of the proceeds if either one licenses the work in exchange for payment, even if one author only contributed a small amount of ideas or resources for the final product. Conflicts may arise when joint authors have different opinions as to what constitutes an appropriate licensing or income agreement for the shared, copyrighted work. The ability of each joint author to grant only non-exclusive licenses of the copyrighted work may diminish the income potential of a single, exclusive license, but all joint authors must be in complete agreement in order to grant an exclusive license.


The copyright on works subject to U.S. copyright law and created after January 1, 1978 remains in effect for the life of the author plus 70 years. For works of joint authorship created under the same circumstances, the copyright lasts for 70 years beyond the death of the last living joint author. Copyright ownership passes to the copyright holder's heirs for the duration of the copyright protection. Depending on the relative lifespans of the joint authors, this can create a substantial extension of the copyright protection period to the estates of the joint authors who die first.

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