Copyright Licensing and Assignment

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 What Is Copyright Licensing?

Copyright licensing is the transfer of one or more of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights from the owner to another person or entity so they can make use of them. These rights include the rights to reproduce the work, create derivative works, distribute the work to the public, publicly display visual works, and digitally transmit sound records.

Most often, the transfer of a right or rights is done either with an assignment or a license. With a license, the copyright owner retains their ownership of any right that is transferred. An assignment, on the other hand, transfers all exclusive rights and is comparable to a sale. The original copyright owner basically sells their rights to another person or entity who then essentially owns them.

When an owner assigns their rights to another, they give up the right to control how the rights are used. This is the same as selling any item of personal property; the seller cannot control how the buyer uses the item once it has been sold.

Generally, a license is the preferred type of transaction, if the original copyright holder wants to continue exercising their interests and control over their work. For example, if a person assigns their copyright in a song to a music producer, the decision about whether to allow a film producer to use the song in a film belongs to the producer and not to the original copyright holder.

This result can be avoided if the copyright owner transfers an interest or interests in a song by way of a licensing agreement. Then, the copyright owner retains the ability to license an interest or interests in the song to another entity, e.g., a film producer.

The assignment of a copyright is a form of property, i.e., intellectual property, that can be used like any other item of property that has value. For example, it could be used as security for a loan, bequeathed to heirs, or simply transferred for a price or other consideration.

Once rights have been assigned to another person or entity, the original owner has permanently transferred their right to control the copyrighted work. The original owner would be committing copyright infringement if they were to try to make use of any of the rights that they assigned.

If an original owner were to regret an assignment that they made, they would be able to try to buy back their copyright from the assignee. Then, it would be the choice of the assignee whether to sell their interest or not.

Under federal copyright law, a transfer of ownership is only valid if there is something in writing, e.g., a written assignment agreement, note, or memorandum of transfer, signed by the owner of the copyright or their agent.

The law does not require recording of an assignment with the U.S. Copyright Office, but there are advantages to doing it. For example, it creates a public record of the exact details of the transfer and gives notice to members of the public. It can set the priority of rights if there have been conflicting transfers of ownership. It can validate the transfer of the copyright to one person or entity against another.

What Happens if I Transfer My Exclusive Rights to Another Person?

If the owner of a copyright licenses one or more of their exclusive rights to only one other person or entity with no intention of granting the same right to any other person or entity, the person has granted them an exclusive license.

An exclusive license gives its owner the right to exclude all others, including the original copyright owner, from exercising the rights granted in the license. A copyright owner may choose to grant an exclusive license for several reasons, including:

  • Profiting from their copyright: The licensee may pay the copyright owner for the exclusive use of one or more of their rights;
  • Publicity: For example, the author of a book might authorize a movie studio to produce a movie based on the book in order to draw increased publicity to the author and the book. Of course, it could prove to be highly profitable as well.

Can I License the Same Right to More Than One Person?

A person can license the same right to more than one person as long as they make each and every licensee aware of the fact that they are not getting an exclusive license but rather a nonexclusive one. Presumably, a copyright owner could grant an exclusive license for a larger fee than a non-exclusive one.

How Do I Transfer My Rights to Another Person?

If a copyright owner wants to transfer one or more of their rights to another person exclusively, they must put the transfer in writing and sign it. However, the creation of a nonexclusive license requires no written document. In fact, nonexclusive licenses can even be implied if the conduct of the parties indicates licensing.

What Is a Copyright Assignment?

As noted above, a copyright assignment can be described as a kind of exclusive license in which a copyright owner transfers all of his exclusive rights to another person. Like an exclusive license, a copyright assignment must be in writing.

Should I Record the Transfer of Copyright Ownership?

Recordation of a copyright interest with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required to make it valid, but, again, it is a good idea, especially from the perspective of the person who acquires the interest. By recording the license or assignment, they can protect their rights in the event that the copyright owner licenses to someone else. If a person is the first to receive a license, promptly recording the license can protect them from losing their rights to a competing licensee in the future.

Are Transfers Permanent?

If a copyright owner has placed no time restrictions on a license, the transfer of rights is considered to be permanent for a period of 35 years. At that point, the original copyright owner has a 5-year window in which to exercise their right to terminate any licenses or assignments. If the original copyright owner chooses to end a license at this point, the licensee has to give up all the rights granted in the license.

Of course, a copyright owner can grant a license for a specified period of time. They would have to draft a licensing agreement, perhaps with the help of an intellectual property lawyer, that grants the exact rights the owner wants to grant for a desired period of time with any other conditions and restrictions that they want to place on the grant.

Do I Need a Lawyer to License My Copyright?

The licensing of a copyright can be complex. can connect you to an experienced copyright attorney who can draft a licensing agreement for your copyright that provides you with the interest you want and protects it from the claims of others.

Or, if you are involved in a dispute about an existing license, your lawyer can help you resolve it. A copyright attorney can draft an assignment agreement or other form of assignment as well.

Your lawyer can negotiate a resolution or represent you in court if that should become necessary.

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