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Assigning Copyright – What You Need To Know

Copyright rests with the original creator of a work, unless it is actively assigned to another party. In some industries there are already long-standing practices for managing this fact. For example, people who are employed to produce content for their employer (e.g. journalists, staff photographers) will typically be asked to assign copyright of their work to their employer as part of their contract of employment. Likewise, freelancers who are hired to produce content will often be required to assign copyright to the person who hired them. In many other situations, the matter is more open to negotiation. Let’s look at three common scenarios for publishing written content and see how they are affected by copyright laws.

Self-publishing (ebooks).

In this situation, the author is in full control of their book. The only way that the author might find themselves in a situation where they might be expected to assign copyright to another party would be if a sales platform demanded it. In the real world however, it would be highly unlikely that this would be commercially viable. Ebook authors do, however, have to remember that copyright laws work both ways. In other words, they have to respect other people’s copyright too. Even unintentional breaches are still breaches.

 Selling articles/stories to magazines/journals

Writers should check carefully what rights they are assigning to the publication before they commit to the sale. Some publications have standard copyright policies which require the writer to assign copyright to them as part of the sale and the writer’s choice is simple – take it or leave it. Other publications may offer the writer the choice between assigning copyright and assigning licensing writes, but may offer more favourable terms for the former. In both of these situations, a writer needs to think very carefully about the actual and potential value of their intellectual property. They also need to consider how feasible it would be for them to protect it themselves if need be. This last point is worthy of strong consideration in the real world. In simple terms, the less inclined you are to be vigilant about copyright breaches and take action about them, the more sense it may make to assign it to someone else who will.

 Selling books to publishing companies

In the book publishing world, it’s long been standard practice for authors to retain the copyright of their work, but assign publishing rights to a third party. In fact, they can even limit these rights to certain formats and jurisdictions. Because the author owns the copyright, they can, in principle, then go on to strike deals with those who want to use the work they created for other purposes (e.g. TV and/or film adaptations). Of course, in the real world this is far more relevant for authors of fiction than for authors of non-fiction works and even then there are only a very small minority of authors who are going to make significant money in this way. In modern publishing, however, it is possible that some publishing companies may request an author assign copyright to them, particularly if the book is shorter in length and may have a limited sales life. Again, authors should look at contracts very carefully before they sign them and think about their likely effect in the real world.

Buying copyright

While the majority of this article has been written from the point of view of content creators, it’s important to remember that there are also many people who buy in content and who also need to be aware of the laws relating to copyright. If a buyer is specifically paying for the services of a content creator, then it could be highly advisable to specify in the contract that copyright is transferred to the buyer. This simple action can go a long way to avoiding disputes later on, particularly if it transpires that the IP does have significant value.

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