Copyright Ownership: The Joint Authorship Doctrine

How many times have you picked a book off the shelf and found that it has been written by two authors? Or a book in which credit is given to a third party? There is more than meets the eye when it comes to the creation, sale and publication of a written work, and those who are not well-versed on the laws governing this practice are susceptible to legal recourse.

The Copyright Act includes a clause which discusses the “Joint Authorship Doctrine”, which applies to any published or unpublished work for which more than one person must be credited. The first is typically the author of the majority of the work, while the second may be a publisher, a co-author or a contributor to the volume.

Typically, the joint authorship doctrine refers to a work for which there is a sharing of duties and rights. This can involve splitting the profits or royalties that a creative work generates, the sharing of publication rights for the work, or the serial rights that might be given to one party or another.

The Copyright Act allows for joint authorship only when two (or more) authors contribute to the same work with the intention of creating one whole with both parts. In this case, the copyright registration will belong equally to both parties.

Examples of joint authorship could include a co-author, a ghostwriter, an illustrator, a photographer, a book-packager, or a book that contains excerpts from another copyrighted book or work.

Ideally, the two (or more) authors will have formed an agreement before the start of the work that establishes copyright ownership to one, the other, or to both. A contract between two people is binding, and will serve to negate any debate later on as to the copyright ownership of the work. Sometimes, however, this doesn’t happen that way, and there is a dispute once the work is ready for publication.

In some cases, the publisher of the work as well as its attorneys will help to define copyright ownership once it has been accepted for publication. In this case, the contributions of both authors will be weighed against the value of the property, and profits or royalties will be assigned accordingly.

Another instance in which the joint authorship doctrine comes into play is for a work-for-hire agreement. Work for hire means that a writer has been contracted by another individual or entity (such as a publisher) to write a book or article. In this case, copyright ownership is usually decided in advance, as with co-authorship, but sometimes people forget that this is an issue.

In the case of work-for-hire agreements, the copyright will usually fall into the hands of the publisher or individual purchasing the work. Because the work was paid for by the employer, the writer has no rights to the work unless given these rights in a written agreement.

When it comes to joint authorship, it is important to get everything in writing. Discuss the terms of copyright ownership before ever putting pen to paper, and protect yourself from that point on.

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