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Joint authorship and collective works

A joint work is a work prepared by two or more individuals, with the intention that their separate contributions be merged into a single work. A joint author can also be an organization or a corporation under the definition of "work made for hire." A person who has merely contributed ideas without actually documenting those ideas generally cannot be considered an author for purposes of U.S. copyright law.

Co-authors own the work’s copyright jointly and equally, unless the authors make an agreement otherwise. Each joint author has the right to exercise any or all of the exclusive rights inherent in the joint work. Each author may:

  • Grant third parties permission to use the work on a nonexclusive basis without the consent of other joint authors
  • Transfer their entire ownership interest to another person without the other joint authors' consent
  • Update the work for their own purpose

Additionally, each joint author must account to the other joint authors for any profits received from licensing the joint work, though such profit accounting could be altered through an agreement among joint authors.

Collaborators should try to clarify joint ownership interests in a written (or even an oral) agreement, covering such issues as:

  • ownership and use
  • rights to revise the works
  • marketing and sharing of any revenue
  • warranties against copyright infringement

At UC, the ownership of joint works is determined by assessing the category of work for each of the contributors, as described in Section III.B of the UC Policy on Copyright Ownership.

Collective works

A collective work is generally a compilation, such as a periodical, anthology, or encyclopedia, in which a number of separate and independent works are assembled into one larger work. If you have contributed to a compilation, it does not change the copyright status of your work.

Copyright in a separate contribution to a published collective work is distinct from the copyright in the collective work as a whole. To create a collective work, an editor or compiler must obtain permission from the copyright owners of the separate parts (assuming such parts are not already in the public domain). Authorship of the collective work as a whole may be claimed, and may include revisions, editing, compilation, and similar effort that went into putting the work into final form.

The owner of copyright in the collective work is presumed to have acquired the privilege of reproducing and distributing the individual contributions only as part of that particular collective work and any revisions that occur.

Although the author of the collective compilation may not own the copyright to any of the individual parts, the particular selection or organization of the constituent materials may be protected by copyright if it's sufficiently creative.

Who is an author?

As explained on “What do I own?,” copyright protection is automatic for any "original work of authorship" created and "fixed in any tangible medium of expression." From the perspective of copyright law, an author is generally someone who creates that expression, such as the artist who drew a picture, the musician who composes the notes, or the writer who composes a short story. Authorship under copyright law is a separate determination from the concept of authorship in scholarly publications like research articles, which may be based on disciplinary norms about credit. Such norms may instead consider things like who designed an experiment, who did the laboratory work the article is describing, or who leads the laboratory where the research took place. Those factors, by themselves, are not necessarily sufficient to establish authorship (either sole or joint) under copyright law.