The Rights and Duties of a Co-Author

Copyright laws are largely unregulated, which means that two people who wish to collaborate on a creative work must establish their own rules and regulations when it comes to the sale and distribution of that collective work. The rights and duties of a co-author are outlined by the joint authorship doctrine of the Copyright Act, and can only be changed in a contract or agreement between two parties.

The rule of thumb is that on any joint authorship project, the author and co-author should agree to terms prior to the start of the work, and should agree accordingly. Even if you are writing a book with your best friend, it is always best to get it in writing. No longer is it safe to seal a deal with a handshake, and pen and paper are always the better choice.

However, if there is no formal agreement between two parties as to the copyright ownership of a work, the Copyright Act will hold this agreement for them:

1. Equal Ownership

Both parties – the author and co-author, or whatever other arrangements between contributors – will own equal part of the final work. This means that profits generated by the work will be split evenly between them, even if one individual did substantially more work than the other.

2. Division

Division is something that most contributors to a single work will find difficult to grasp. Under the Copyright Act, when no other formal agreement is made, each contributor owns half of the entire work, and not necessarily those parts that they contributed. In other words, if a children’s book is written by one person and illustrated by another, they will each own half of the illustrations and the words, rather than dividing between the illustrations and words.

3. Third-Party Rights

All contributors to one particular work must agree to grant publication rights to a third party. This means that if Joe and Diane write a book together – granting them joint authorship copyright – Joe can’t sell the book to a publisher without Diane’s consent.

4. Shared Profits

No matter when, how or by whom the material is published, all contributors are entitled to their portion of any profits. This means that, in the above example, Joe is not allowed to keep �¾ of the profits while Diane only enjoys a quarter of them. All parties are required to admit to any profits generated by the work, and distribute accordingly.

5. Transfer of Ownership

Unless otherwise stipulated, one of the contributors has the legal right to transfer his or her ownership of the material to a third party, or back into the hands of the other contributors. In other words, if Diane decides she doesn’t want her name on the book anymore, she can transfer the ownership to Kristin and allow Kristin to take over Diane’s half of the ownership. Similarly, she can transfer the entire copyright ownership to Joe.

6. Authorship Credit

When and if the material is published, each contributor is allowed an equal credit for the authorship. This means that the book created by Joe and Diane cannot say ‘by Joe’ unless Diane agrees that her name does not need to appear in the byline.

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