Don’t Believe This Copyright Lie

Here’s the number one copyright lie you need to forget. Immediately. (And the truth, which you’d do well to remember.)

Setting the Stage

It happens in any industry where someone hires someone else to create something. A business hires a web developer to update and revamp its website. A musician hires a producer to edit or mix a recording. Someone hires a graphic designer to create fresh, new branding. They agree on payment structure. The job is done, and the worker is paid. Then, the assumption game begins.

If there’s no contract in place, then you might not even think about copyright ownership. The assumption (read: LIE) is that because you’re paying a person to contribute something creative, you’ll own the work product.

If there is a contract in place, maybe it mentions a license, or glosses over intellectual property ownership somehow. Either way, it might not matter to you because, again, you assume that because you pay, you own.

The Copyright Lie, in a Nutshell

This is the number one copyright lie that I hear as a copyright attorney: “I sought out and paid [creative person] to create [website/logo/artwork] for me. So I own it. Right?”
Wrong.

According to US copyright law, the author (aka the creator) is automatically the owner. (That law appears at Section 201 of the U.S. Copyright Act.) That’s the default under the law, unless they’re an employee creating something in the course of their job, or there’s a signed document that states otherwise. A copyright transfer must be signed and in writing to be valid! Remember that a transfer is a transfer of ownership, as opposed to a license, which is more like permission. It will likely take the form of a work-for-hire or assignment. (And, if you don’t have a contract template like that at your disposal, here’s an example of one.)

The Point: Don’t forget to forget this lie. Payment isn’t enough; a copyright transfer of ownership must be in writing. And if anyone tells you differently, set him straight!

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