If you've created a piece of intellectual property -- a book, piece of music or computer code -- by law, you own the right to determine how the property is used. The law also gives you the right to transfer some or all of your intellectual property rights to a third party. You can register an assignment of intellectual property with the U.S. Copyright Office by a process called recordation.
The basis of copyright protection is found in the U.S. Constitution. Copyright is the recognition of legal rights concerning the results of the creative process. Copyright protects original works of intellectual property, whether the work is published or unpublished. You can’t copyright ideas – instead, copyright protects the specific way you choose to express an idea. A copyright owner has the right to sell or lease copies of the work to others and to permit others to display, record or perform the work in public. The copyright owner may also determine whether others may make copies of the work, and whether others may revise all or part of the work. Copyright differs from patents, which generally protect inventions. Copyright also differs from trademarks, which are often names or phrases used to identify goods and services.
Copyright transfer can be nonexclusive. One of the most common examples of nonexclusive transfer of copyright is a licensing agreement. For instance, many computer software purchases are actually a form of transfer of the right to use the software for a specified period of time. The owner of the copyright for the software still owns the copyright. In many cases, a license is non-transferable. That is, the person who buys the license does not have the right to sell, lend or give the licensed property to a third party without obtaining permission from the copyright holder.
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Unlike a license, assignment of copyright is an exclusive transfer. Assignment of copyright can involve a partial transfer or a transfer of the entire intellectual work. Assignment of copyright can be temporary, after which the copyright returns to the original owner. Assignment of copyright can also be permanent. A total, permanent assignment of copyright allows the party obtaining the copyright to distribute the property in any way she sees fit. One example of a permanent assignment of copyright for an entire piece of intellectual property is a work made for hire. The terms of a work made for hire specify that its copyright belongs to the person or entity that purchases a work made for hire, not the person who created it.
The Recordation Process
The U.S. Copyright Office does not have standard forms the process of recordation. However, the Copyright Office does provide a cover sheet to submit with the work submitted for recordation, the use of which is optional but encouraged. The requirements for a recordation are a complete, legible copy of the property being transferred, an original signature or a properly certified copy of a signature of the person assigning the copyright and the applicable fee. The property to be transferred does not have to be registered with the copyright office and can be published or unpublished.
- Stanford University Libraries: Copyright and Fair Use
- U.S. Copyright Office: Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright
- U.S. Copyright Office: Assignment/Transfer of Copyright Ownership
- U.S. Copyright Office: Recordation of Transfers and Other Documents
- BitLaw: Copyright Licenses and Assignments
- LWN.net: Desktop Summit -- Copyright assignments
Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.