Sometimes we have clients ask about sharing copyright with another party. Often multiple parties feel like they should “own” the rights to a particular created work. Although sometimes it can make sense, usually it is not what the parties want to have happen.
US Copyright law allows sharing of copyright in what is called a “joint work”. It is a “work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” In other words, two or more people working on something together, who then end up as co-authors.
The way US Copyright law treats US joint work authors is that they can each nonexclusively license the work to others, but they have a duty to account to each other to share the profits derived from it. The specific mechanisms as to how that works are beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice to say that is frequently not what the parties asking this question have in mind — instead, they often mean that either party can go off and do whatever it wants with the work. One way to do that is for the parties to be joint authors and cross license, but more often there may be better ways to divvy it up: one party holding the copyright and the other as holding a broad nonexclusive sublicensable license, or by contributing the copyright and other IP all into a limited liability entity (a corporation, LLC, etc.) which the parties share ownership interest in.
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