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Ownership of Copyright

The individual that authors a copyrightable work is the owner of the work. The only two exceptions are:

  1. An employee automatically assigns all copyrights to his or her employer. In other words, an employer automatically owns all copyrightable works created by an employee, even in the absence of an agreement.
  2. The work is assigned by a written agreement.

To obtain ownership of a work created by a non-employee, a company must have a written agreement with the author or developer, such as:

  • Independent contractors or free-lancers engaged by the company.
  • Organizations engaged by the company to write software or author documentation or sales and marketing materials, such as software development groups, advertising agencies, logo designers, and graphic artists.

The owner of a copyrighted work has a number of rights, including:

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work.
  • The right to prepare derivative works.
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public.
  • The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.
  • The right to display the copyrighted work publicly.
  • Moral rights. The right to control modification of the work even after it has been assigned.

Most importantly, this means a company cannot use, modify or exploit the copyrighted works of others without express written permission, unless the exploitation is considered a “fair use.” The fair use exception is very narrow for commercial use of works and should never be assumed to apply. Moral rights are of particular concern if any part of the work was made outside of the United States.