Let’s assume that several authors co-write an article or a book. Who owns the copyright in the jointly-created work?
The answer is that the authors are equal co-owners of the copyright (17 U.S.C. Section 201[a]). Each copyright co-owner can exploit the copyright as he or she wishes (for example, by granting one or more nonexclusive sublicenses). However, each is obligated to share any profits from such activities with the other co-owners (see, e.g., Thomson v. Larson).
Please note that the situation is different for jointly-owned patents, where there is no obligation for one owner to share profits with another. (See I’m One of Several Inventors – Who Owns the Patent?)
There is a similar, but different, situation that must be distinguished. Let’s assume that an individual creates a book, arranging for each chapter to be written by a different author (referred to as a “collective work“). Absent any agreement to the contrary, each author will own the copyright in his or her chapter. However, the individual who created the collective work will own the copyright in it and will have the rights to reproduce, distribute and revise it. (17 U.S.C. Section 201[c])
Dana H. Shultz, Attorney at Law +1 510-547-0545 dana [at] danashultz [dot] com
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