Do you have questions about ownership of copyright? Our brief and clear answers to these commonly asked copyright ownership questions will help.
As always, please don’t rely on our short, practical answers as legal advice or opinions. Contact an attorney should you be faced with a copyright issue.
Who owns the copyright to the text, illustrations and photographs in a published book?
There’s no straightforward answer. Ownership depends upon the publishing agreement signed by the publisher and author, illustrator or photographer. If you want to reproduce a portion of a book, it’s often easiest to locate and contact the publisher. If the publisher can’t provide you with reproduction rights, they can refer you to the author, illustrator or photographer, or their representative, who may provide you with the appropriate rights.
Do I own the copyright to photographs taken during an expedition that was funded by a separate entity (i.e., a museum)? I used my own photographic equipment and I didn’t sign any document that transfers my copyright.
Subject to specific exceptions, a person owns the copyright in photographs they take. Although you didn’t sign any assignment of copyright, you need to check the wording in your funding agreement to see if you’ve transferred your rights in exchange for being funded for your project.
Who owns copyright in U.S. government works?
If the work in question was created by a federal government employee in the course of their job duties, the work is in the public domain, meaning there’s no copyright protection in it. However, the U.S. government may own copyright in some works; for instance, if they were bequeathed or assigned to them. For example, a U.S. government contractor might write a report and then assign copyright to the government, resulting in the government owning copyright in it. Outside the U.S., the protection of U.S. government works is dependent upon the laws of the country where the work is used.
You may be interested in our article Copyright in U.S. Government Works.
A visitor loaned our museum library some slides for us to digitize. Who owns the copyright in the slides?
A loan doesn’t constitute a transfer of rights. The visitor presumably owns the copyright in the slides, unless they transfer 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 doesn’t just own the physical slides.
What should you do if a publisher tells you that rights in a book have reverted to the author, but the author claims otherwise?
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 they understand they have the rights and may grant permission for your use.
To complement a work project, my employer posted some of my personal photos on the company’s website. May my employer do this without my permission?
No, the copyright in the photographs belong to you, unless the photographs were taken as part of your employment duties. Your employer must get your permission prior to posting them.
If you’re Canadian you may be interested in our article Who Owns Copyright in Canada?
To learn more about copyright law, see our copyright eTutorials.