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Copyright Crash Course

Who Owns It?

What Can be Copyrighted?

What kind of expression is copyrightable?

Copyrightable expression is original authorship, fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

Examples of copyrightable expression, assuming they are original, could be: poetry; prose; software applications; artwork; musical notation; recorded music and/or song; animations; video; a web page; blog posts and comments; architectural drawings; or photographs.

Examples that do not qualify as copyrightable expression: facts; exact duplications of public domain works; ideas; systems; works created by employees of the Federal Government; titles and short phrases; logos and slogans; or forms that only collect information (rather than provide information).

Basics of Ownership

The author is usually the owner.

Except when work-for-hire rules apply. The author's employer owns work(s) if:

  • It was created by an employee within the scope of employment, or
  • It falls 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. As an example, many publishers require assignment of copyright as a condition of publication.

Policies, such as the U.T. System Intellectual Property Policy can also change the ownership rules by permitting faculty ownership of scholarly, artistic, literary, musical, and educational materials within the author's field of expertise.

Keep in mind that collaborations in online environments usually involve:

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

Joint works

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.

No matter how many collaborators, the work will only be a jointly owned work if the collaborators intended, at the time of creation, that their contributions would be joined into a unified whole and that they would be joint authors. Many times collaborators agree on the first point, but they really haven't thought about the second point. Because intent to be a joint author is subjective, it's quite likely that different collaborators have different ideas about this, if they've thought about it at all. This makes intent an excellent issue to bring up for discussion at the beginning of a project. It is especially important for primary authors to think about the question of whether the resulting work will be theirs alone, or jointly owned with everyone else who contributed, and convey their thoughts on the matter early on. It is even better to document such discussions in an agreement of some kind, even a very informal one.

If you don't like the result - try to change it!

Once you know who owns what, you may decide that it's not at all like it should be. If so, you'll need to make some changes to bring about a more desirable result. If you feel you need an assignment of copyright from someone who contributed, to avoid a potential joint authorship issue, the assignment must be in writing and signed by the owner of the copyright. This might also be necessary if a contributor hired someone to write computer code, take photographs or do design work without a contract. Probably neither of them thought the person being hired would own copyright in what they produced, but that's what the law would dictate as the result. It is better to have the contract at the beginning, but it can be fixed after the fact, if the parties are willing. Even if you only need a license (e.g. permission to use a work rather than assignment of all the rights in it), it should be in writing so that the rights to use are clearly stated and documented.

Protecting Your Work

Protecting your work is easy today, arguably too easy. It's protected from the moment you hit the save key on your computer, touch your pencil to paper, brush to canvas, etc. Works are protected from the moment of their fixation in a tangible medium of protection. This means that notes taken during a lecture enjoy the full force of federal copyright law for the life of the author plus 70 years. Given the purpose of copyright, to encourage the growth of knowledge, it hardly makes sense to provide a period of exclusive use backed up by the full force of the U.S. legal system to insure the optimal production of lecture notes. But that's another issue.

If you want to go the extra mile to make sure you can enforce your rights in federal court, you'll need to register your automatic copyright with the Copyright Office. You can learn all you need to know to register copyrights at the Copyright Office's website. It's relatively inexpensive and fast, but it's only necessary if you think it likely that you would sue someone to stop an infringement of your rights.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 Generic License.