Copyright: What is it, and how to transfer them?


27 September 2023
Copyright is a fundamental concept that every freelance writer should have an understanding of. It's the legal safeguard that protects your rights to the creative work you produce.

In this practical article, we’ll explore the details of copyright in freelance writing, highlighting key concepts, ways to protect your intellectual property rights, and how to transfer those rights when needed.

What is copyright?

Copyright law is designed to protect the rights of authors over their original works. Unlike patents, copyright is automatically implied when you create something original, tangible, and creative. It doesn’t have to be entirely unique, but it must involve some degree of creativity and be fixed in a tangible form.

Imagine this scenario: You write a poem about two friends from Spain that go back to their high school to find their former partners. The copyright to this imaginative creation belongs solely to you. However, others can take the same idea and create their own renditions, becoming copyright owners of their unique interpretations.

The Copyright Act of 1976 is a very important law for freelancers. It says that as soon as you create something and put it into a form that can be seen or touched (like writing a story or drawing a picture), it’s protected by copyright. You don’t have to fill out any forms or pay any money for this protection, it’s automatic. If you are not sure about something, you can contact the Copyright Office that oversees the national copyright system in US. They provide advises the courts and the general public on copyright law.

What is more, you can think of copyright as having two distinct components: economic rights and moral rights. The economic ones allow for the financial exploitation of the work, while the moral rights govern the non-commercial uses of an original creation.

What is copyright ownership in freelance work?

In most freelance situations, the copyright to your work belongs to you, the creator, unless a contract states otherwise. This means that even if a client pays for your work, you retain ownership of the copyright. In the United States, there is a significant exemption in the form of “work for hire” contracts, where the party paying for the work often takes copyright ownership. What does it mean? 

“Work for hire” may encompass tasks performed as an employee, custom creations as part of larger projects, contributions to films or videos, supplemental materials, tutorials, tests, or atlas production. Note, however, that even if your work falls into these classifications, a written contract specifically designating it as “work for hire” is required.

Remember though that you can partially or wholly transfer your copyright through a written agreement. For instance, freelance writers can forfeit their copyright when they receive payment for their work. Alternatively, you can license your work, allowing others to use it while retaining copyright ownership, much like software licensing.

Does copyright automatically transfer to clients?

One common belief is that if you pay a freelancer, you instantly become the owner of the copyright for their work. In actuality, the copyright still belongs to the freelancer in the absence of a contract. This implies that the freelancer maintains control and is free to incorporate the work into other projects or their portfolio without your consent.

To avoid misunderstandings, it’s crucial to have a comprehensive agreement that addresses the ownership. Without such an agreement, the client is paying you for your work without gaining any rights or control over it – you should be aware of this in case the client tries to exploit your inexperience in the matter and claim your work even though they haven’t drawn up a contract beforehands.

What about copyright protection?

Even if your work doesn’t qualify as “work for hire,” you can assign the copyright to your client through a written agreement. This agreement must explicitly state the transfer of copyright and be in place before the client can use your work. Without a written agreement, as you already know, you remain as the copyright holder, and the client receives only a limited license for specific use.

Freelance copyright law doesn’t protect ideas, so it’s vital to have a contract in place before commencing any work. These contracts should outline work details, the ownership, payment terms, and payment schedules.

The duration of copyright protection varies. “Work for hire” copyrights expire 95 years after initial publication or 120 years after creation. For authors, copyrights remain valid for their lifetime plus an additional 70 years.

Still, you should be aware that without registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, you may have limited options for legal action in the event of an infringement suit.

Did you know that in order to safeguard the copyright of creative works and intellectual property in many nations, the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) was established in 1952? It offers a basis for defending the creative works’ copyright across several nations. Freelancers should be aware that in countries that have ratified the UCC, their work may be automatically secured by copyright.

How to correctly transfer copyright?

When you find yourself in situations where transferring copyright is necessary, it’s essential to do so correctly. For projects like ghostwriting, where clients often seek full ownership of the work, you must follow the proper steps. Keep in mind that once you transfer copyright, you may no longer resell or reuse the work.

There are two primary methods for transferring copyright. Copyright Transfer Agreements legally transfer the copyright from the creator to the client, ensuring a clear and definitive transfer of ownership and the exclusive right to the piece. License, on the other hand, instead of relinquishing copyright entirely, a license grants the client permission to use the work for specified purposes while the creator is still the copyright owner.

As a creative freelancer, understanding the specifics of copyright and the various ways to transfer it is invaluable. It allows you to protect your intellectual property while meeting the needs and expectations of your clients. As a freelancer, consider platforms like Useme that offer safe ways to manage freelance jobs, protect your rights, get paid promptly, and ultimately streamline the copyright transfer process for both parties involved. 

Armed with these tools and insights, you can approach the world of freelance writing with confidence and professionalism

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