There are a few different ways a person could become an owner of a copyright.

  • One way is to author the copyrighted material.
  • Another way is to collect and put together the works of others into one collective work.
  • A person may obtain a copyright through authorship in a compilation.
  • A person might obtain a copyright in the work of the person’s employee.
  • A person may obtain a copyright of derivative work of a copyrighted work.
  • A person may obtain a copyright in a work by valid transfer from a previous owner. All or part of an owner’s exclusive rights may be transferred. One type of transfer occurs where the author of the copyrighted material transfers title to the work to another person while retaining a right to royalties based on sales related to the copyrighted work. Under these circumstances, the author is called a beneficial owner.
  • A person may also have a license in, but not own, a copyright.

Originaltor of the Work

To prove ownership by authorship, the owner must prove that he or she was the originator of the work. It is not enough for the plaintiff to only contribute to the work in some way. The plaintiff must also prove that he or she controlled the creation of the entire work, and that he or she made, or caused the making of, the work into a fixed tangible medium of expression. Helpers are not authors.

Two or more people may author a work. This is called ownership by joint authorship. In order to have ownership by joint authorship, each author must have expressed an intent that each of their contributions would be merged into inseparable parts of the whole work. Each author must have contributed more than just ideas or directions, and each must be entitled to copyright protection without the contribution of the other author or authors.

Collective Works

A person may own a copyright in a collective work. Examples of collective works include a book of short stories by different writers, periodicals, or encyclopedias. In order to own a copyright on a collective work, the plaintiff must prove he or she assembled the contributions of works in the collective work. The copyright in the collective work is different than the individual copyrights in the individual works.


A person may own a copyright by authoring a compilation. A compilation is created by collecting and compiling original works that are already existing into such a way that the resulting work as a whole is an original work of authorship.

Employer’s Right to an Employee’s Work

An employer might obtain a copyright in his or her employee’s work. If the work was created within the course or scope of the employee’s employment by the employer, the copyright belongs to the employer unless there is a written document, signed by the employer, giving the copyright to the employee.

Even if the work is not created by an employee, an employer may still have a copyright in the work of another if the employer specifically commissioned the work of the other for use as: (a) a contribution to a collective work, (b) part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, (c) a translation, (d) a supplementary work, (e) a compilation, (f) an instructional text, (g) a test or answer material for a test, (h) an atlas.

Derivative Works

A plaintiff may prove ownership of a derivative work by authorship. A derivative work is a work based on an existing work or existing works. In order to have a copyright in derivative work, a person must change, adapt, or transform an existing work to create an original work. A person who obtains a copyright in a derivative work may enforce the exclusive rights to the derivative work, but not to the existing work or works upon which the derivative work is based.


A person may obtain ownership rights in a copyright by transfer. An owner of a copyright may transfer to another one or more rights in a copyrights work. One such right might be the right to make copies of the work. The transfer must be in writing and signed by the owner transferring the right or rights or his or her agent. If the owner transferring the right or rights transfers an exclusive license, this means that no one else can have this right. The person receiving the exclusive license becomes the owner of the rights transferred exclusively and can exclude others, including the owner who transferred those rights, from exercising those rights.