Copyright gives authors a bundle of personal property or economic rights in an original work of authorship. These rights include the rights to reproduce, create derivative works, distribute work to the public, publicly perform a work, publicly display visual works, and digitally transmit sound records. They belong exclusively to a copyright holder.
Usually, the copyright holder is the person who created the work. However, any of these economic rights, or any part of these economic rights, can be transferred. Under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), an artist’s moral rights in a work of fine art can be waived but not assigned.
The transfer of economic rights may be on an exclusive basis, which requires a written agreement, or a nonexclusive basis, which does not require a written agreement. Mostly commonly, this transfer is accomplished by assignment or license. Unlike a license in which the copyright owner maintains his or her ownership, an assignment is similar to a sale. The original copyright owner sells the rights to a third party and cannot control how the rights are used, just as he or she would not be able to control how personal property that he or she sold was used once it was transferred.
Generally, a license is preferable if a copyright holder expects to continue exercising interests and control over the work. For example, if you assign your copyright in a song to a music producer, the decision about whether to allow a film studio to use your song in a film will belong to the producer, not to you. If you license your copyright in a song in a limited capacity to a music producer, however, you will continue to be able to license your copyright in the song to a film producer.
Assignments can be used for many different purposes, such as security for debt, as an asset passed to heirs, or as part of the distribution of assets after a bankruptcy proceeding. Once you assign your rights to somebody else, however, you are permanently giving away your right to control the work. That means if you try to exercise any of the rights you have assigned, you are committing copyright infringement even though you created the work. If you assign your copyright to somebody else and regret the loss, you may be able to buy your copyright back from that person, but whether or not to sell it back to you is up to the assignee.
How Is Copyright Assigned?
Under section 204, a transfer of ownership is only valid if the instrument, note, or memorandum of transfer is in writing, signed by the copyright owner or his duly authorized agent. Generally, a certificate of acknowledgement is not required for the transfer to be valid, but it can be used as prima facie evidence that a transfer was executed if it is issued by someone authorized to administer oaths in the United States or, if the transfer is executed abroad, if the certificate is issued by a United States diplomatic or consular official, or a person authorized to administer oaths who also provides a certificate.
You do not have to record an assignment in in order to assign the interest. However, there are advantages to recording the assignment, such as creating a public record of the transfer details, giving constructive notice to members of the public, establishing priority of rights when there are conflicting transfers of ownership, validating the transfer of the copyright against a third party, or in some cases perfecting a security interest.