Artists, Authors, Musicians: Be Wary of a Copyright Assignment or an Exclusive Copyright License

It’s an important day when an artist signs his first artist agreement, when an author executes her first publishing contract, or when a band strikes their first record deal. It’s even more important that the creative parties signing these agreements understand what rights they may be giving away. Too often creative parties realize after it’s too late that they have effectively transferred almost all rights in their work and even in future works.

Under Section 204 of the Copyright Act, a transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law (including but not limited to corporate mergers, bankruptcy, foreclosure, court order, and intestate succession), is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent. 17 U.S.C. § 204. Consequently, a publisher, studio, or producer, will often incorporate language into a contract that transfers all intellectual property rights and copyright rights in a work away from the creative party. Sometimes, the non-creative party will do this in the form of an exclusive license, which many times has the same effect of a copyright assignment.

Sometimes, agreements that provide for the transfer of or exclusive rights to such rights also include language that expressly states that all future works created by the creative party are considered a Work-Made-For-Hire and that if necessary, the creative party agrees to sign additional documents assigning or exclusively licensing their rights in the copyright of the work. A Work-Made-For-Hire means essentially as it sounds, in that the creative party is an employee of an organization and it is his or her job to create the specific type of work being commercialized or that the creative party has been specifically commissioned and hired to complete a specific piece of work, but not in an employer-employee relationship, but rather in an independent contractor role. In either case, the non-creative party is seeking and asserting ownership or exclusivity in all rights in the copyright for all future works before they are even created.

It is highly recommended that a creative party, whether author or singer, retain a skilled lawyer to review any contract that poses a threat to the ownership or rights in the copyright of a specific work or future works. It is not always a bad thing that these rights are transferred or exclusively licensed, but such rights should be understood by the creative party in the context of the overall agreement in order to provide the creative party with an exit strategy in case the relationship between the parties doesn’t work out. An artist, author, or singer, often spends his or her entire life trying to ‘catch a break’ or ‘make it big’ or ‘break out’, why not spend the time and minimal expense to protect what took in some cases a lifetime to achieve?