Who Owns That Copyright?

Who Owns That Copyright? by Pat Werschulz

We’ve been talking a little bit about copyright, and how an author owns a copyright or copyrights as soon as their work is put into fixed media. Whether it’s written on a piece of paper, saved on a hard drive, or chiseled into stone, a copyright exists. Now the question is: Who owns that copyright? 

One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is that when they are working for somebody else, they may not own the creative work they produce. For example, I have fielded questions from clergy who are covered by contract, specifically to find out if the sermons or liturgical works they create can be exempted from the work-made-for-hire concept. That’s because it’s not unusual for a person of the cloth to collect their sermons or original prayers over the years and publish them — but they need to have specifically retained enough of the rights to do that.  

If you are creating something for yourself, whether you’re a musician or an artist — generally speaking — you own it. However, you may not own the copyrights to your own work if you’ve been commissioned, if it’s part of a contract, or if it’s part of your own duties to your employer. 

For example: 

  • A portrait artist may not own the copyright to a portrait if the contract says that the subject of the portrait, or whoever commissioned the portrait, owns the copyright. A familiar example of this is university presidents, who are typically captured in some kind of a portrait, whether a painting or a photograph. Generally speaking, the university inserts language into the contract to ensure that it retains the rights to those portraits. 
  • If you are creating work for an employer, the employer owns whatever creative work that is done as part of your job. A good example of this is someone writing an instruction manual for work, or if you’re documenting something that’s beyond just stating the facts. Remember, facts are not copyrightable — but how you arrange and present the facts could be covered by copyright if it’s done in an original way. 

This is just an overview the question of owning your copyright. To ensure that your particular matter is being handled in the best way possible, consult an attorney experienced in Intellectual Property matters.

Patricia Werschulz

Patricia P. Werschulz
Werschulz Patent Law, LLC
23 North Avenue East
Cranford, NJ 07016
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