Joint copyright can be a dangerous trap for businesses. Disputes over joint copyright issues are often expensive, fact intensive and it is difficult to prove ownership. Several recent cases highlight problems that can surface when joint copyright arises - for example the recent case of BUSTED.
In the early 2000's BUSTED was a music group who had several hit singles here in the UK. Recently several members of the band wanted to be added as joint copyright holders so they could receive royalty payments. The band members were unable to prove their case. Nevertheless several days of trial were involved as well as a significant amount of legal fees.
Another recent case also showcased the difficulties with joint copyright and focused on the authorship of the song "A Whiter Shade of Pale." In this case the organist who composed the organ solo to the song was held to be a joint holder of copyright. This decision illustrates the fine line between contributing to a work and co-authoring a work.
WHAT IS JOINT COPYRIGHT?
When there is more than one author or creator of a work each owns a joint copyright. Basically it can be a problem for any business which generates copyrighted works where there has been collaboration.
In general, employers own works that are created by their employees but this is not true with work done by contractors of freelancers. In that case agreement on copyright ownership is done through contract. Employers should beware of copyright ownership disputes when engaging staff and freelancers by using appropriate terms.
The issue of joint copyright often arises in the publishing industry where such collaborations are common. For example one writer will write several chapters in a book and someone else will edit the same chapters and write several more chapters. In this case the writers would be joint copyright holders over the whole book. This situation is also commonly found in the software industry where a group of people contribute to a single program.
Joint copyright can significantly impact the value of the work. This is one of the reasons why many IP lawyers view it negatively. If someone is held to be a joint copyright owner they probably will be entitled to royalty payments and will also have a say in selling the copyright. This impacts the value of the copyright because the potential buyer or licensor will have to buy or get a licence from each of the owners which is significantly more costly and time consuming than dealing with one owner alone. Joint copyright ownership also restricts what the other owners can do with their own work. This means that if one party uses the material commercially without the other's consent, they would be infringing the other's copyright.
Another related issue to joint copyright is moral rights. This right is separate from copyright ownership. A creator of a work has the right to be identified as such and has the right to object to derogatory treatment of the work. As with copyright ownership each contributor could have moral rights in the work unless they have signed an employee contract or another agreement where they waive their rights.
HOW TO AVOID DISPUTES:
The best way to avoid litigation later on is to decide copyright and moral right matters early on. It is best to make an agreement before the project starts which addresses the question of ownership and rights to use of the end product.
An agreement should always clearly address the nature and extent of each party's contribution along with copyright ownership and moral rights. Each person who works or collaborates on the project should sign it.
It is also important to keep detailed records of how the work progresses and who contributed what. These records will be extremely useful later on if a suit does arise. After the work is finished it is also ideal if all contributors sign the records to confirm that they agree with the account in the records.
Azrights Solicitors is a firm of London Intellectual Property and Technology Lawyers advising on litigation and intellectual property rights. Shireen Smith is the principal and specialist information technology and IP lawyer.
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