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The Difference Between Joint Copyright Ownership and Collective Work

Law Office of Julie Scott LLC  Sept. 1, 2023

Circled letter C with hand writing Copyright word under itThe internet and digital media have spawned tremendous opportunities for those creating original work. There have always been outlets for creators. What is different now is not just the type of outlets at your disposal, but consumer demand for content of every kind.

When people collaborate with each other on original products, copyright ownership usually belongs to the creators, but it can be bought and sold. Who has the right to sell may be unclear, particularly when two or more creators made the product happen.

It is important for you to protect the rights you have if you hold a copyright jointly, collectively, or solely. As a former research scientist who became an intellectual property attorney, I understand this importance more than most lawyers. I can help you not only protect your copyright, but also make sure you understand why it is yours to protect. 

If you are a sole creator or collaborator of creative work in Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield, or Rolla, Missouri, let the Law Office of Julie Scott LLC help.  

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is the intellectual property protection that attaches to the original work of a human being once the work is fixed in a tangible form of expression. So what does that mean?

There are two key components of copyright. First, the work must be original and bear at least a minimum amount of creativity. Second, the creator must “fix” the work in a sufficiently permanent medium so that the work can be seen, communicated, and reproduced by others. For example, the work is printed, published on the internet, or recorded. 

If you create original work in the scope of your employment, your employer will hold copyright to it. For example, if you are a reporter for a digital news publication, the work you produce belongs to your employer. However, if you are a freelance journalist, you retain the copyright to your original work.  

There is a distinction between copyright and other intellectual property. Copyright protects original expression, such as stories, poems, novels, songs, sculptures, paintings, movies, blogs, and architectural drawings. What it does not protect is such intellectual property as concepts, ideas, inventions, processes, procedures, and systems. 

It is important that creators of original work understand the unique types of protections for various forms of their work. For example, a copyright agreement allegedly protecting a new mousetrap will not hold up in court. Work with an intellectual property attorney to ensure your work is, indeed, protected.  

What Is the Difference Between Joint Works & Collective Works?

The difference between joint works and collective works is clear under copyright law. How does copyright law apply to collaborative work? It depends on which category it falls under by definition.  

A joint work is something you and at least one other person create together with the intention of making a single, unified work. In other words, without the collaboration, the work does not stand on its own. For example, you and someone else co-write the lyrics of a song or team up to write a story published in a newspaper. 

A collective work, on the other hand, is an assemblage of multiple works under a single umbrella. Each work can stand on its own but becomes a part of a collection in a certain format. For example, your song is added to a band’s album. Your short story is added to a book of collected short stories. 

Joint works are owned equally by both creators because it is a common work. Joint authorship gives each creator an equal share of any revenue the work generates, and each must agree on how the work is used. However, a joint copyright agreement can provide the documentation necessary to deviate from the share and share-alike course of a joint work. 

A joint copyright agreement, forged between creators of a joint work, can detail such matters as who decides how the work is used. Does one creator have the right to make that choice, or must both agree? How will revenue generated from the work be distributed among the creators? Can one creator sell their copyright without the permission of the other creator? 

If you created something that appears in a collective work, you grant the publisher the right to use your work in it. However, you retain the copyright to your work. Publishers hold the copyright to their collective works as a whole. The owner of the collective copyright can reproduce your work as part of the collection in its original format, but they cannot separate your single work from the collective work to reproduce or sell.  

What Should Be Included in a Joint Copyright Agreement?

Regardless of your relationship with the other person or persons in joint authorship, you should protect your interests in a joint copyright agreement. The agreement will force you to make decisions regarding ownership of your original work and resolve potential challenges and disputes before they arise.  

For example, you and a friend collaborate on a screenplay. Two studios bid on buying the screenplay and you and your co-creator disagree on which one to sell it to and for how much. You wrote more of the work than your co-creator, so you want more of the revenue generated from it. Plus, you want your name to appear before your co-creators in the credits.  

If you do not have a well-crafted joint copyright agreement, disagreement on these issues could end up in court. Moreover, because there are issues, any studio interested in your work may back away until legal matters are resolved.  

How an Attorney Can Help

If you work with an experienced intellectual property attorney on crafting a joint copyright agreement, you can avoid disputes should they arise down the road. Your attorney will first know what potential issues may arise so they can be addressed comprehensively in the agreement. Second, your attorney will know how to draft language that complies with copyright laws, which means it will withstand legal challenges.  

It is also wise to work with a copyright lawyer when selling your copyright to someone, or when someone wants to include your work in a collective. Your attorney will make sure you are not taken advantage of.  

Protect What’s Yours

If you have created an original work, protect your copyright. If you don’t, others can take advantage of your work for their own benefit. In the digital age, it is easier than ever for that to occur. So, let me help.  

Call the Law Office of Julie Scott LLC in Kansas City, Missouri, today to begin protecting what’s yours.