Copyright Qs & As: Ownership of Copyright Materials/Content

3.1 Question: Who owns the copyright to the text and illustrations/photographs in a published book?

Answer: There is no straightforward answer. Ownership depends upon the publishing agreement signed by the publisher and author/illustrator/photographer. If you want to reproduce a portion of a book, it is often easiest to locate and contact the publisher. If the publisher cannot provide you with reproduction rights, they can refer you to the author/illustrator/photographer, or their representative, who may provide you with the appropriate rights. (2006-3)

3.2 Question:  Do I own the copyright to photographs taken during an expedition that was funded by a separate entity, i.e., museum?  I used my own photographic equipment and I did not sign any document that transfers my copyright.

Answer:  Subject to specific exceptions, a person owns the copyright in photographs he takes.  Although you did not sign any assignment of copyright, you need to check the wording in your funding agreement to see if you have transferred your rights in exchange for being funded for your project.

3.3 Question:  A visitor loaned our museum library some slides for us to digitize. Who owns the copyright in the slides, and who owns the copyright in the digitized copies of the slides?

Answer: A loan does not constitute a transfer of rights. The visitor presumably owns the copyright in the slides, unless he transfers ownership to you in a signed agreement.  Before digitizing the slides, ensure that the visitor does in fact own the copyright in the slides and does not just own the physical slides.  Generally, the person/entity who digitizes slides will own the copyright in them (this is assuming the digitized versions are copyright-protected.) (2010-3)

3.4 Question:  What should one do if a publisher tells you that rights in a book have reverted to the author however the author claims otherwise.

Answer: Ask the publisher to send you an email confirming that rights have reverted to the author. You may then need to “educate” the author so he understands that he has the rights and may grant permission for your use. (2011-3)

3.5 Question:  To complement a work project, my employer has posted some of my personal photos on the company’s website.  May he do this without my permission?

Answer: No, the photographs belong to you.  Unless the photographs were taken as part of your employment duties, you own the copyright in the photographs.  Your employer must get your permission prior to posting the photographs. (2011-4)


  1. MG says:

    Hi, I have a question about copyright dates. I am getting a book translated from English into Welsh that has both text and photographs. I understand that a translated work should have a new copyright date than the original but I’m wondering if the photos should still have the original copyright date since they are not changing. The text was copyrighted to the author and the photos to the photographer. Any advice would be appreciated!

  2. Lesley says:

    Reproducing a work in the same or different medium requires permission.

  3. tk says:

    Is it infringement to copy a drawing or any image in a different medium than the original?
    For example, creating a digital drawing by manipulating stills from a movie?
    The question is regarding the medium change not the image manipulation, if it even makes any difference.


  4. Lesley says:

    Hi Haley, unless you agreed and provided permission, your images may not be used by anyone including the subjects of the images.

  5. Haley says:

    Say I have taken photographs at a live show, with the owners and performers permission, and then displayed them online. Can the people from the show take those photographs offline and use them in displays, ads, and brochures without my consent?

  6. Lesley says:

    Hi Scott, without seeing the license, I can provide general information to you. Generally, you can give the software away and whoever owns the software also owns the license that goes with it.

  7. Scott says:

    I have a quick question regarding owning digital licenses in Canada. If, for example, I purchased a product that gave me the licences to use the program/software at the store for $150 (a good example would be Microsoft Office), it comes with a license that I can only use a certain amount of times. Am I considered to “own” those licenses, in other words, do I have the right to donate the license to a charity for their own use in order to receive a tax receipt for the value of the licenses? Your response is much appreciated, thank you.

  8. Lesley says:

    Hi Dana, you still have to assume that a work is protected by copyright even if you cannot determine or locate the copyright owner. If you decide to use the text without obtaining permission, you will have to evaluate the risks you are taking of using content without permission.

  9. Lesley says:

    Hi Carolin, in Canada you may take a photo of a building or landmark without permission. The law may vary in different jurisdictions.

  10. Dana says:

    I am in the midst of writing a book and wanted to use a funny thing written that I found online. It says the author is unknown. Does this mean that there would be no copyright issues attached to it?

  11. Carolin says:

    Hi Lesley,
    When it comes to photographs, is there any instance where a photographer would have to get permission to take a photo of a well known building or landmark? My thinking is no that we would only have to have permission by the copyright owner of the photo. Is this correct?


  12. Lesley says:

    Hi Aaron, copyright is automatic upon creation/fixation of a work. The US Copyright Office has much general info on copyright to assist you.

  13. Aaron says:

    If I write lyrics do I have copyright protection over those lyrics? Also if i write a book independently do I have a copyright over it as well?

  14. Lesley says:

    Hi Crystal, you own the rights in the works you create such as the screensaver (make sure you have cleared rights in any underlying works that you include in your screensaver.) You do not own the software which you used to create the screensaver.

  15. Lesley says:

    Hi Vanessa, yes, I could see someone doing that. You grant a license to the magazine for N. American rights for print uses and you retain the copyright and all others uses. As a license, you always retain the copyright. You can make the rights grant exclusive or non-exclusive and for any length of time. I generally keep the rights to articles I prepare for print or electronic magazines.

  16. Vanessa Craddock says:

    Is it reasonable to grant a magazine first North American publication rights and license to use articles I write in their print magazine, but to retain copyright of my work? Can I keep copyright of a monthly article in someone’s magazine? Thank you.

  17. Lesley says:

    Hi Izzy, as to whether you can change format without permission, it depends on which country you live in. Some countries may have a provision for this purpose. Countries that do not currently have such a provision may add one in the near future as this is a situation that arises more frequently now.

  18. Lesley says:

    Hi Geoff, there are provisions in both the Canadian and US laws for preservation. Not sure where you are based. However, the provisions with which I am familiar are for libraries as they are defined in the respective copyright statutes. So, first thing is to ensure you are a library within the words of the statute, then determine how preservation is defined.

  19. Crystal says:

    My question is that I want to sell a screensaver on my website. I am an artist and I created the screensaver in my windows display feature, it is an .scr file.

    Can I sell this? Do I own it? Is there a better way to go? Thank you for you site!

  20. Geoff says:

    I work in the Audiovisual Dept at a Community College. One dept asked me to digitize copyrighted film slides and make a playable DVD. This process also includes digitizing the audio cassette that come with this. I have told them I can’t due to copyright laws, their response is that we are preserving it. They do intend to both show to students as well as have it available for check out. Is this legal??

  21. Lesley says:

    Hi Kendra, if you are using any slogan or image, you are best to obtain permission. Modifying a slogan or image may also require permission. There is no simple answer as to what you are hoping to do, so best advice is to consult a lawyer about copyright and trademark uses, and also about protecting your own slogans and images.

  22. Kendra says:

    I am planning on starting a personal training business using a phase that I saw on a t-shirt. The shirt reads Workout Like a Girl with the silouette of a woman doing a weightlifting move. I have checked and believe that the phrase Workout Like a Girl is not trademarked, however I am not sure. I was wondering if #1. I can use the name for promotional purposes and if I was to change the image of the silouette to that of another person doing a differing position if that it would be copyright infringement. Any advice would be helpful as everything at the moment is hinging of this very question. Thanks so much!

  23. Lesley says:

    Hi Tim, when manipulating images in any manner, you may need to clear the right of reproduction and adaptation, as well as be concerned about moral rights (changes that may harm the reputation of the creator of the work). Any new work based on an underlying work would have a new copyright in it and be owned by the creator of the new work.

  24. Tim says:

    Hi there,
    My question is to do with distorting images or using only pieces of images. An example would be creating an animated flash website out of a normal static image eg: A picture of a stage which the curtains open and close. Or an image of a button that changes colour when one hovers over it.

  25. Lesley says:

    Hi Diane, any reproductions, photographs or digitizations, require permission of the copyright holder. Even if you have permission to photograph a work, you do not have permission to digitize it or upload the photo onto the internet.

  26. Diane says:

    Hi Lesley. If an organization makes photographs of original paintings or postcards (in which they do not have copyright, but probably were given permission to photograph), and then digitizes the photographs for the purpose of uploading to the Internet, who owns the copyright in the digitized images? Would the organization have a right to upload these digitized images?

  27. Lesley says:

    Hi Alison, what is the copyright work here? For example, is there some text explaining the experiment? If so, you would need permission to reproduce the text. However, ideas and information is not protected by copyright. So if you are just using ideas, then there is no protection in the ideas, just any words or recording used to express those ideas.

  28. Alison says:

    Hi Lesley,

    If a publisher wants to use a lab/experiment for examples (make it into a video as an example) that were created by someone else, what are the copyright limitations on that? What if we have no idea who the originator of the experiment was and it’s just something Professors have been using in their classrooms for years now.

  29. Lesley says:

    Hi Stephanie, when you purchase an item at auction, generally you purchase the physical item and not the intellectual property/copyright in that item. As such, you need permission to reproduce (including digitizing) that item. Before seeking permission, determine whether the duration of copyright still exists in the item or whether it is in the public domain (in which case permission is no longer required.)

  30. Lesley says:

    Hi Diane, in most copyright laws around the world, there must be a written transfer of ownership – or assignment – for the ownership to shift from the photographer to someone else — other than works created during the course of employment.

  31. Diane Wales says:

    If a photographer produces photos in the course of his employment by an organization, the employer owns copyright, but what is the situation for a photographer who takes the photos for the organization he volunteers for? Does the photographer own copyright if there has not been a written agreement giving all rights to the volunteer organization?

  32. Stephanie W. says:

    I have access to several glass negatives from a 1920’s photographer/artist in Vermont. The negatives were purchased at auction and the owner is not a relative or an heir of the original photographer/artist. The owner of the slides and myself are interested in digitizing and printing the slides to sell as prints. Is this legal or is would this be copyright infringement?

    I also have access to various diaries and photographs purchased at auction and I’m wondering what the copyright laws are for digitizing and distribution for them as well.


  33. Lesley says:

    Hi John, ownership of your video depends on the contract. You need to read the entire agreement. Did you accept the terms and conditions? Was there any sort of compensation (not necessarily monetary)? Did you assign your rights in full? Some things to think about in analyzing your situation.

  34. John says:

    Hi Lesley,
    I had a quick question. About 1 months ago i participated in an online competition to make an ad for a client. The winner would take 5000 dollars. I didn’t win and a month later i ask the guys if i could delete my video as i have someone else interested in buying the animation leading to the logo (but use nothing from the actual brand that organised the competition). They send me back an email saying they can’t take it off because it belongs now to the client stating a line from the contract: “All
returned.” I thought they would retain the video for the duration of the comp if i didn’t win. I didn’t get anything as well for the 50 hrs or so of work. I thought for a contract to be binding an exchange of service has to happen(both parties gaining something) I was wondering if they are in the wrong? do i still retain ownership and copyright? or no
    Thanks for your time Lesley

  35. Izzy Pru says:

    I have a question, I have a bunch of old 8 tracts. I bought them all and own them legally. Nobody makes 8 tract players and mine broke. So is it legal for me to transfer all of the songs to a CD?

  36. Lesley says:

    Hi Gabi, you may summarize the contents of the book in your own words without obtaining copyright permission since there is no copyright in ideas, etc. However, if you are reproducing portion(s) of the book, you will have to look at the quantity and quality of the portions copied as well as other factors and make a determination based on the facts under the U.S. fair use principle (assuming the use is in the U.S.)

  37. gabi says:

    I have been asked to create an abstract of book that can be used by our engineers within our company. Would this be copyright infringement if I create the abstract for our company to use internally? To me it seems so.
    thanks and this is a great site!

  38. Lesley says:

    Hi Stephanie, your question has many issues to explore. Works prepared by civil servants for the U.S. government do not have copyright protection and may be used freely by anyone. However, if a publisher edits or value adds to the original work, then there may be copyright in the new parts and permission to use those new parts would be necessary.

  39. Stephanie Holmgren says:

    A government employee wrote an article that was published by Mary Ann Liebert in 1997. The journal changed titles in 1998 and closed in 2001. Few libraries carry the journal and PubMed does not index it (so it’s almost impossible to discover it even exists). The author would like to post his article online to make his research accessible to the public. Two other researchers (ten years later) have been publishing results and claiming they are the first to see the health effects, when in fact these had already been discovered and reported in the author’s article. He’s trying to claim that as a government work the publisher does not hold copyright. While I believe that’s true of the original manuscript, I don’t believe that’s true of the redacted, edited publisher copy. He also mentioned that the publisher does not provide the opportunity to purchase articles from that journal online. Therefore, he’s not infringing their copyright since they have abandoned making money from his article. Does this author have ownership due to the government angle? If not, can he still post it online as “fair use” since the article itself is difficult to obtain and the company isn’t even selling it?

  40. says:

    Hi SuzAnn, generally the author of any research (unless employed) owns the copyright in his writings. However, an author could agree to grant those rights to someone else including a funding agency.

  41. SuzAnn says:

    my question is this: if a company funds a grant for research and the receipent then publishes a paper in say, JAMA, with tables, graphs, and questionnaires based off the research, who owns those tables etc? We're trying to find the copyright owner of a questionnaire and have gotten told three different entities own it!

  42. says:

    Hi JN — next time you enter into any partnership, a partnership agreement setting out who owns what is highly recommended. At this point, some general principles to guide you — there is no copyright in ideas — anything jointly created is jointly owner — anyone can access and use/adapt public domain works (as long as they are truly in the public domain!)

  43. Jn says:

    My question is this:

    Real names and websites excluded for privacy.

    My friend and I create , an SEO site for users to search for deals and offers and whatnot.
    He coded it, I supplied the logo, name, and did the graphics for that. The domain is in his name. We have had a disagreement and parted ways, and I have started a new site entitled

    the logo used was free clip-art, adapted to my needs. I have re-used the same piece and adjusted it even further. The website is the same idea, re-designed.

    As I was the original author of the name and visuals, but he uploaded them, who has the copyright ownership? The author (myself), or the publisher (him) ?


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