Copyright Licenses and Assignments

One of the primary benefits of copyright ownership is the ability to transfer some or all of those rights to third parties. These transfers can be for all of the copyright rights in a work (which is generally referred to as an outright assignment), or can be for a limited portion of the rights provided by the Copyright Act (which usually takes the form a copyright license).

The BitLaw discussion of assignments and licenses is divided into the following four sections:

Transfers in General

Copyright is a personal property right, and it is subject to various state laws and regulations that govern the ownership, inheritance, or transfer of personal property. It is probably best to view copyright as a bundle of rights. The rights included in that bundle are the rights granted by the U.S. Copyright Act, as described in the BitLaw discussion on the scope of copyright protection. Any or all of these rights, or any subdivision of those rights, may be transferred.

A transfer of one of these rights may be made on an exclusive or nonexclusive basis. The transfer of exclusive rights is not valid unless that transfer is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed. Transfer of a right on a nonexclusive basis does not require a written agreement. For example, the author of a novel, as the original copyright owner of the novel, could transfer to a publisher the exclusive right to copy and distribute a novel (under the right of reproduction and distribution), and also grant a screen play writer the nonexclusive right to create a movie script based on that novel (under the right to create derivative works). The author's agreement with the publisher would have to be in writing to be valid. However, the agreement with the screen play writer could be oral and still be enforceable.

A transfer of copyright rights is usually either an assignment or a license. An assignment of copyright rights is like the sale of personal property. The original owner sells its rights to a third party, and can no longer exercise control over how the third party uses those rights. A license (or more properly "an express license") is an agreement where the copyright owner maintains its ownership of the rights involved, but allows a third party to exercise some or all of those rights without fear of a copyright infringement suit. A license will be preferred over an assignment of rights where the copyright holder wishes to maintain some ownership over the rights, or wishes to exercise continuing control over how the third party uses the copyright holder's rights.

A typical software license agreement is a copyright license agreement. The owner of the copyright in the software wishes to grant the end-user the right to utilize the software in a restricted manner. In return, the end-user may agree to limit its use of the software in a variety of ways and to pay a license fee payment to the copyright owner.

Implied Licenses

An implied copyright license is a license created by law in the absence of an actual agreement between the parties. Implied licenses arise when the conduct of the parties indicates that some license is to be extended between the copyright owner and the licensee, but the parties themselves did not bother to create a license. This differs from an express license in that the parties never actually agree on the specific terms of the license. The purpose of an implied license is to allow the licensee (the party who licenses the work from the copyright owner) some right to use the copyrighted work, but only to the extent that the copyright owner would have allowed had the parties negotiated an agreement. Generally, the custom and practice of the community are used to determine the scope of the implied license.

Implied licenses have been used to grant licenses in situations where a copyrighted work was created by one party at the request of another. In one case, a special effects company was hired to create a specific effect for a horror movie. The contract through which the special effects company was hired did not assign the copyright in the effect, and did not provide for a license for the effect to be used in the horror movie. The court ruled that the effect could be used in the horror movie through an implied license, since the effect was created with the intent that it be used and distributed in the movie.

A commonly discussed scenario where implied licenses are destined to play a major role is on the World Wide Web. When a Web page is viewed in a Web browser, the page is downloaded through the Internet and placed on the user's screen. It is clear that a copy of the Web page is being made by the user. It is also clear that the Web page is protected against unauthorized copying by copyright law. But it would not make sense to allow the author of a Web page to sue a user who viewed her page, since the author intended that the page be viewed by others when she placed it on the World Wide Web. Rather, attorneys argue, courts should find that the Web page author has given end users an implied license to download and view the Web page. The extent of this implied license is unclear, and may someday be defined by the courts.

Termination of Transfers

Although a copyright owner is free to transfer her copyright rights as she sees fit, the Copyright Act contains a non-revocable right for a copyright owner to terminate any copyright transfer. The purpose for this is to give the creator of the work or the creator's heirs a second chance to exploit the work in situations where the value of the work may have been significantly enhanced since the original transfer. Generally, there is a five year window of time to accomplish the termination beginning either at

  • 35 years from the assignment if the transfer was made on or after January 1, 1978; or
  • 56 years from the date copyright was originally secured if the transfer was made before January 1, 1978.

The ability to terminate a transfer cannot be negotiated away. Thus, the author of a valuable book has the right to reclaim the copyright in the book by terminating the transfer, even if the agreement signed by the author stated that the assignment of her copyright rights was permanent and irrevocable. Exceptions to this ability to terminate a transfer are made for those parties who created derivative works prior to the termination (see the BitLaw discussion on derivative works for more information on this subject). In addition, works made for hire are not subject to this termination of transfer right (works made for hire are discussed in the BitLaw section on copyright ownership).

Recordation of Transfers

A document that transfers copyright ownership or any other document pertaining to a copyright may be recorded in the Copyright Office. Although recordation is not required to make a valid transfer of a copyright, recordation of the transfer document does provide certain legal advantages and may be required to validate the transfer as against third parties.