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University of Texas University of Texas Libraries

Copyright Crash Course

Who Owns What?


The author is usually the owner.

  • Except when work-for-hire rules apply. The author's employer owns work(s):
    • Created by an employee within the scope of employment, or
    • That fall within one or more of the nine statutory categories, where an agreement commissioning the work is in writing and signed by the creator or creators before work begins.
      • The nine statutory categories include: contribution to a collective work; part of a movie or other audiovisual work; a translation; a supplementary work; a compilation; an instructional text; a test; answer material for a test; or an atlas
  • If a work doesn't fit within the statutory definition of a work-for-hire, the employer may still own it if the author assigns the copyright to the employer or contractor.
  • An author-owner is free to assign copyright to anyone, so a written contract can change these basic rules.
    • Many publishers require assignment of copyright as a condition of publication

Policies, such as the U.T. System Intellectual Property Policy also change the ownership rules.

  • They can permit faculty ownership of scholarly, artistic, literary, musical, and educational materials within the author's field of expertise.

Ownership can be complicated. Some categories of works that used to be distinct and about which there were few issues of ownership may now be merged into a single work.

  • Scholarly works owned by faculty members can be implemented in software; works-made-for-hire can incorporate pre-existing materials that a faculty author created earlier.

Other issues arise because of collaboration. Complications can arise in the following circumstances:

  • Collaboration in online environments
  • Creation of multimedia course materials
  • Online courses and distance learning

These and other similar situations usually involve:

  • Inter-institutional collaborators or other non-affiliated collaborators
  • Student contributions
  • Contract labor contributions
  • Non-faculty university employee contributions

In order to be joint authors of a work, each person must:

  • Contribute copyrightable expression, and
  • Intend at the time the work is created that all contributors will be joint owners of the whole finished work.

The best way to sort out joint ownership is through discussion and agreement at the start of a project. For example, a blog and its commentary present potential joint contributors with opportunities to create collaborative works. One way the blog owner(s) could address ownership and use issue would be to indicate from the start that all contributions are individually owned, no joint work is intended, but all contributions will be publicly licensed under a Creative Commons license that permits the creation of derivative works. This would allow all contributors to use their own and others' contributions in other works. This license could be further refined as commercial or non-commercial. 

Finally, some issues arise because institutional resources are scarce and must be allocated wisely and recovered when possible. So, even if an institution is not an owner of a work under the work-for-hire rules, it may have an interest in acquiring rights or recovering its investment in a work created with significant amounts or kinds of institutional resources. If such a work is commercialized, the institution may even wish to share in the royalties. All of these rights should be addressed in a contract.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.