Can a copyright be transferred to another person?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 14, 2021

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Ownership of a copyright is similar to ownership of other types of personal property. A copyright and copyright protection can be sold, given by designation, or transferred just like real estate. You can also add limits on the duration, scope and nature of the transferred copyright. As with other property transactions related to a copyright protection, transfer of a copyright must take place in writing.

Any or all of a copyright owner’s rights can be transferred. A copyright may also be conveyed, bequeathed by will, or passed on as part of an estate. However, no transfers of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights are valid unless the transfer is documented in writing. The transfer agreement must be signed by the owner of the copyright or his or her authorized agent.

You do not need a written agreement if you are transferring copyright protection on a nonexclusive basis. Just as it’s advisable, but not required, that you register your copyright, you do not have to register a transfer with the Copyright Office. Even though this is not required to make the transfer valid, it does safeguard the original owner against third parties or any future attempt to invalidate the copyright transfer.

If you need to terminate a copyright transfer, the most straightforward way is by written agreement. You can include a specific term or end date in the transfer agreement. Otherwise, the copyright transfer will terminate according to the law. Currently, the law terminates a transfer of copyright protection after 35 years. The transferee or recipient must receive written notice of the copyright termination. This law applies to current transfers. For works that were copyrighted before 1978, the rules are a bit different.

Because copyright protection is a personal property right, it’s governed by state law. That includes any statutes or regulations related to inheritance, transfers of personal property and terms of contracts. To make sure you understand the state laws concerning your copyright protection, contact the state Attorney General’s office or consult an intellectual property attorney.

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