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Copyright Law: Ownership

A guide designed for MU Law students to introduce some of the Law Library resources on U.S. Copyright / Last updated by Tyler Kraft, JD '24

Who Owns The Copyright?

Copyright Ownership

Determinations about who owns a particular copyright are governed primarily by § 201 of the Copyright Act. As a general rule, the copyrights to any given work are vested in the work's author:

"(a) Initial Ownership.—Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work."


As a general rule, the author of a work, "is the party who actually creates the work, that is, the person who translates an idea into a fixed, tangible expression." Community for Creative Nonviolence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730, 737 (1989). Important exceptions to or elaborations of this general rule are detailed below.

Works for Hire

Whenever a copyrightable work is created by an employee within the scope of employment, that work is considered a "Work for Hire". Under § 201(b) of the Copyright Act, the author (and thus the holder of the copyrights) of a work made for hire is the employer on whose behalf the work was prepared.

An important part of the "work for hire" provision of the Copyright Act is that independent contractors cannot produce works for hire. Because works for hire can only be created by employees acting within the scope of employment, a laborer's status as either an employee or an independent contractor can be important for determining copyright ownership. Under Community for Creative Nonviolence v. Reid, determinations about employee/independent contractor status in the copyright context should be made in accordance with the general common law of agency.

Joint Authorship

Whenever a singular work is authored by two or more individuals, both individuals become joint owners of the copyrights in the completed work. These rights are exercised in roughly the same manner as a tenancy in common.

The mere contribution of ideas, refinements, or editorial direction does not entitle a person to joint authorship. There is a split among the federal circuits, however, regarding the requirements of joint authorship. Some circuits have held that, in order for two authors to be considered joint authors, both parties' contributions must be independently eligible for copyright protection when considered separately. Other circuits have held that each author only must have contributed some non-trivial creative expression to the work.

Collective Works

A "Collective Work" is defined as a work in which a number of independent and separate works are combined into a cohesive whole. Common examples include periodicals (including newspapers), anthologies, and encyclopedias.

The author of a collective work can, through the creation process, obtain copyrights in the selection, arrangement, and presentation of the component works. However, the collective work's author does not, through creation of the collective work, obtain any copyrights in the individual component works. Authors of collective works are presumed to only possess a license to copy and distribute component works as part of their specific collective work.

Translation / La Traducción

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Para su comodidad, puede usar el cuadro abajo para traducir esta guía a su idoma preferido. Usa el cuadro desplegable para seleccionar el idioma que querar leer.