Owner or Author – What’s the Difference?

Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you own it.

Just because you painted it doesn’t mean you own it.

Just because you recorded it doesn’t mean you own it.

This list could go on and on because copyright law views the creator of a work and the owner of the legal rights to the work as two very different things.

Copyright Owner or Author

First, let’s clarify some legal terminology. In the world of copyright law, the creator of a work (such as the author of a book, the photographer who took a picture, the artist who painted a painting, a musician who recorded a song, and so on) is referred to as the author or originator. The person or entity who has the legal rights to publish, modify, and republish the work is referred to as the owner.

Bottom-line, if you don’t understand copyright ownership and protect your creative work now, you could get into some expensive trouble later. Here are three examples of how ownership vs. authorship could matter to you as the originator of creative work:

1. Assigned Rights

An author writes a manuscript and sells (i.e., “assigns”) the ownership rights to a publishing company. The author has given up any rights to that manuscript.

If you’re an author, make sure your publisher’s contract states that you retain the copyright to your work.

2. Work for Hire

A writer (or photographer, painter, or other creator) is hired by a business, individual, or any other paying client to create a written work for that client as part of a specific agreement. This is referred to as a “work for hire” arrangement, and the client who pays for the work gets the authorship and ownership rights to it.

If you’re a writer, write something for a paying client, and want to retain the copyright for your work, make sure the contract is not a “work-for-hire” agreement and clearly states that you retain the authorship and ownership of your work.

3. Employer-Employee Relationship

A video game developer creates a new video game on the company’s dime as part of his or her employment. The employer is the author and owner of the work.

If you’re a full-time employee who creates original work for your employer, it is highly unlikely that the employer would agree to give you the copyrights to that work. Part of your employment with the company means that the work you create as an employee belongs to the company.

Owner or Author beyond Copyright Law

Keep in mind, ownership vs. authorship extends beyond copyright law. It also applies to trademark law and patent law. In other words, it touches all aspects of intellectual property law.

Trademark Law

In trademark law, the creators of the mark (i.e., the words or logo), are not recognized by the law. Only the trademark owner is recognized as having any rights to that mark. Furthermore, a trademark can pass from owner to owner at any time during the lifespan of a mark.

For example, when Pfizer purchased Warner Lambert and became the new owner of the Lipitor trademark, it got all of the legal rights, too.

Patent Law

In patent law, the inventor is the person who created the invention, but the owner can be the inventor, an employer, or a different person or entity to whom the patent rights are assigned or transferred.

For example, the employees who invented the new technology used in the first iPhone don’t own the patents to those inventions. Their employer, Apple, is the patent owner and retains all legal rights to those inventions.

Protect Your Original Work by Knowing Your Rights and Role

The lesson to learn is simple. Understand your rights as creator vs. owner of your original work before you agree to a “work for hire” contract or allow anyone else to pay for or use your work.