Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – Joint Works

A work of authorship is considered a joint work “if the authors collaborated with each other, or if each of the authors prepared his or her contribution with the knowledge and intention that it would be merged with the contributions of other authors as ‘inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.’”

The key requirement “is the intention, at the time the writing is done, that the parts be absorbed or combined into an integrated unit.” A contribution to a joint work is considered “inseparable” if the work contains a single form of authorship, such as a novel or painting, and it is considered “interdependent” if the work contains multiple forms of authorship, such as motion picture, opera, or the music and lyrics of a song.

The applicant — not the U.S. Copyright Office — must determine whether a work qualifies as a joint work, and as the legislative history explains, this determination should be based on the facts that existed when the work was created. Upon request, the Office will provide the applicant with general information about the provisions of the Copyright Act, including the statutory definition for a joint work, and will explain the relevant practices and procedures for registering this type of work.

When examining a joint work, the Office applies U.S. copyright law, even if the work was created in a foreign country, created by a citizen, domiciliary, or habitual resident of a foreign country, or first published in a foreign country. The U.S. Copyright Act is the exclusive source of copyright protection in the United States, and all applicants — both foreign and domestic — must demonstrate that a work satisfies the requirements of U.S. copyright law in order to register a work with the Office.

As a general rule, the registration specialist will accept the applicant’s representation that a work of authorship is a joint work, unless it is contradicted by information provided elsewhere in the registration materials or in the Office’s records, or by information that is known to the specialist. If the claim appears implausible, the specialist may communicate with the applicant or may refuse registration.

The Office takes the position (draft) that each joint author must contribute a sufficient amount of original authorship to the work. An author who satisfies this requirement may be considered a joint author, even if his or her contribution to the work is smaller or less significant than the contributions made by another author. By contrast, a collaborator who merely contributes a de minimis amount of expression is not considered a joint author.

The authors of a joint work jointly own the copyright in each other’s contributions and each author owns an undivided interest in the copyright for the work as a whole. In other words, all the authors are “treated generally as tenants in common, with each co-owner having an independent right to use or license the use of a work, subject to a duty of accounting to the other co-owners for any profits.”