Who Can Claim Copyright?

The copyright in a work initially belongs to the author(s) who created that work. When two or more authors create a single work with the intent of merging their contributions into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole, the authors are considered joint authors and have an indivisible interest in the work as a whole. By contrast, if multiple authors contribute to a collective work, each author’s individual contribution is separate and distinct from the copyright ownership in the collective work as a whole.

“Works made for hire” are an important exception to the general rule for claiming copyright. When a work is made for hire, the author is not the individual who actually created the work. Instead, the party that hired the individual is considered the author and the copyright owner of the work. Whether a work is made for hire is determined by the facts that exist at the time the work is created. There are two situations in which a work may be made for hire:

  1. When the work is created by an employee as part of the employee’s regular duties, or
  2. When an individual and the hiring party enter into an express written agreement that the
    work is to be considered a “work made for hire” and the work is specially ordered or commissioned for use as:
  • A compilation
  • A contribution to a collective work
  • A part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • A translation
  • A supplementary work
  • An instructional text
  • A test
  • Answer material for a test
  • An atlas

The concept of work made for hire can be complicated and has serious consequences for both the individual who creates the work and the hiring party who is considered to be the author and copyright owner of the work. For more information, see Works Made for Hire (Circular 30).

Note: Mere ownership of a copy or phonorecord that embodies a work does not give the owner of that copy or phonorecord the ownership of the copyright in the work.

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