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Implied Copyright License: A Life-and-Death Example

Seal of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which decided an implied copyright license caseSeveral months ago, I wrote about the circumstances under which courts will find an implied copyright license if there has not been an assignment of copyright. (If You Don’t Set the Terms of a Copyright License, a Court Will) In a recent case (Estate of Hevia v. Portrio Corp.), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that there was an implied copyright license in a partnership context.

The decedent, Roberto Hevia-Acosta, was an architect. Following his death, his estate and heirs waged an intensive legal battle against his business partner over copyrights in the decedent’s architectural designs.

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If You Don’t Set the Terms of a Copyright License, a Court Will

Picture of a pen sitting on a contract sighature line, symbolizing an implied copyright licenseAlmost a year ago, I wrote about why independent contractors (as contrasted to employees) own the copyrights in works that they create. As a result, a prudent customer will ensure that the contractor assigns its copyrights to the customer (Why “Work Made for Hire” is a Term Made for Confusion). This post discusses the implied copyright license that is granted in the absence of an assignment.

If there is no assignment provision, a court will determine that there is an implied license under the copyright. The rationale is that it would be unfair to deprive the customer of all rights in a work for which the customer has paid. The issue, then, will be the terms of the implied license.

The one certain characteristic of the implied license is that it will be non-exclusive rather than exclusive. The reason: Under 17 U.S.C. Section 101, an exclusive license is considered a transfer of copyright ownership. And under 17 U.S.C. Section 204(a), a transfer of copyright ownership must be in writing and must be signed.

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