Owning copyrights

This page provides information for copyright owners, including details about who may own copyrights, managing your rights, and how to handle infringement. 

Contact us with any questions, or to set up training.

You own copyrights

You definitely already own copyrights. There may also be some works that you created, but that belong to your employer (if you created them on the job), or to someone else (if you transferred them away, as in a publishing agreement).

  1. A copyright comes into existence the moment a copyrightable work is created - no registration is necessary for a copyright to exist,
  2. The copyright usually automatically belongs to the creator (or creators) of the work, and
  3. Status as an employee for an organization, working on commission, and collaborative creation with others can change and affect copyright ownership.

Registration is required to go to court about your copyrights, and if you register early, it brings some extra benefits in court. So registration is often a good idea, but you won’t lose your copyrights by not registering them. 

You can register your copyrights yourself at the Copyright Office. There are some associated fees. 

You may not own copyrights

If you create things as part of your job, those usually belong to your employer. For example, advertising agencies own the ads their employees create. Some employers have policies, or parts of their employment contracts, that say what employees can do with their creations. Other employers may have policies that say employees own some of their creations. It is very common for academic employers to have policies that allow at least some of their employees to own copyrights in their works. Please see the Copyright Ownership Policy in the U of M Policy Library.

If someone who is not your employer hires you to create something for them, they may also own that work, but the rules on this are more strict than the rules for employers owning things. The work has to be specifically commissioned, only applies to a few particular types of work, and there has to be a written contract agreeing that the commissioning person or organization owns the copyright.

If you create something with other people, sometimes that may result in “joint” ownership of the copyright. Joint owners each own the whole copyright, but they may owe each other some obligations of fair treatment.  

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Managing your rights

When you own rights, you can share them with others, or give them away. It is very common for people to use contracts or licenses to make agreements about sharing control or ownership of copyrights. 

A contract between an author and their publisher might say that the publisher gets to print and sell copies, if they pay a certain amount per copy to the author. It might also say things about where the book will be published, or might give the author control over who translates it into other languages. 

A contract between a musical composer and a music publisher might say that the music publisher can put the song online or on the radio, if they pay the composer a certain amount every time the song is played. (Some fees for playing songs are set by law, not contracts, so this can be a complicated issue.) 

Contracts about copyrights can be nonexclusive - where the copyright owner shares some rights with one company, and some other rights with another company. (This would be common for some books published in different countries or different editions.) Contracts about copyrights can also be exclusive - where the copyright owner shares some rights with one company and agrees not to share those rights with anyone else. (This would be common when an author sells someone the right to turn their book into a movie. Sometimes movie rights contracts have a time limit: if they don’t make the movie within a certain number of years, the author gets the rights back.) 

Contracts can also transfer copyrights. In a transfer, the copyright owner gives all their rights to someone else. After a transfer, the creator doesn’t own their copyrights anymore. Most of the time it is more common to share a copyright via a license, than to transfer all your copyrights away. 

Sometimes, a creator who has transferred their rights away can get some rights back, through a tool called a termination of transfer. This can only happen in a narrow window of time, many years after the work is first created. You can learn more from the Authors Alliance

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If you discover your own work being used or shared unexpectedly, remember that owners don’t get complete control! Consider the possibility that someone else is making an allowed use of your work. However, it might not be allowed - that would be infringement, and the law gives you some power to stop that. 

Consult an attorney. An attorney can take direct action on your behalf, and attorneys who have special expertise in copyright may have a lot of potential solutions for you. However, attorneys can be expensive, and there are some self-advocacy steps you can take as well.

Ask them to stop. It is almost always a bad idea for a non-lawyer to send a threatening "cease and desist" copyright letter - even some attorneys make mistakes with legal threats around copyright issues, if they are not specialists. However, a polite request to stop the problematic practice can sometimes work. And if the polite letter doesn't work, you can follow up with other measures.

DMCA takedown. Many websites that host user-generated content will remove or disable problematic content if you contact their DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) agent. However, under the same rules, if the individual who uploaded the material responds asking for their content to be restored, many sites will (appropriately - this is how the law is supposed to work) restore it. At that point, it’s a good idea to contact an attorney with experience with copyright matters.

Don't wait too long! There is a statute of limitations on copyright claims - if you wait more than three years after you find out about the potentially-infringing use, you may not be able to take legal action. (In some jurisdictions, the statute of limitations is understood to begin at the time of infringement, not the time you find out about it. Cases in these jurisdictions expire even faster.)

However, don't rush in too quickly! It is easy to make strong arguments and threats when you feel your rights have been violated, but this doesn’t always work out well. You may find that some infringing uses are not worth your time to pursue. 

Note that you can’t lose your copyright ownership by failing to police your works. People are sometimes confused about this, because you can lose trademarks through neglect, but you continue to own your copyright for the full term, or until you transfer it away.

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