When you’re paying a musician to create something for you — for example, to play on an album, record a song for a film, or to create a soundtrack for a commercial you're producing — you may think you’re automatically acquiring copyright ownership. After all, you’re paying for the work, right? But payment doesn’t guarantee copyright. You need some documentation that shows the musician agrees to transfer the copyright to you.
The most reliable form of documentation is an assignment. Basically, in an assignment, the musician is saying to you, “In consideration of your payment, I sell you the copyright and I agree to cooperate with you in preparing any necessary paperwork needed to protect that copyright.” You can also file the assignment with the U.S. Copyright Office thereby putting the world on notice that you are the owner (or “assignee”) of the copyright.
Like all legal documents, assignments require specific language. Below you’ll find two sample assignments you can use: One is a basic all-purpose assignment, and the other is specifically for recording musicians.
Assignments Are Semi-Permanent
Although an assignment is considered a permanent transfer of ownership, it can be undone. Starting in 1978, anyone who assigned a copyright could terminate the assignment after 35 years. This was Congress’ way of giving artists, authors and musicians who had made bad deals a second bite at the apple. The first year this right is exercised is 2013.
Despite this rule, the vast majority of assignments are unlikely to be terminated. That’s because the termination process is complicated, there’s a limited window of time to claim termination, and only a small proportion of works have enough value after 35 years to justify the effort.
Assignments aren’t the only way to obtain rights under copyright law. You can also acquire rights by executing a license with the copyright owner, or having the work created under “works made for hire” rules. Before we look at some sample assignment agreements, let's take a quick look at works made for hire and licenses.
Works Made for Hire
Like an assignment, a work made for hire (sometimes called a “work for hire”) is also a permanent transfer of copyright. The advantage (over an assignment) is that a work made for hire can’t be terminated after 35 years. But works made for hire have limitations. A work made for hire can only be claimed for (1) works created by an employee in the course of employment; or (2) works commissioned from an independent contractor, provided that the work falls in one of nine categories and there is a written work-made-for-hire agreement in place.
About Rich Stim
Attorney Richard Stim specializes in small business, copyright, patents, and trademark issues at Nolo. He practices law in San Francisco and has represented photographers, software developers, craftspeople, publishers, musicians and toy designers. He is the author of many books, including Music Law: How to Run Your Band’s Business; Patent, Copyright & Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference; and Profit From Your Idea. Stim regularly answers readers’ intellectual property questions at Dear Rich: Nolo’s Patent, Copyright & Trademark Blog. Rich is also an author on Intellectual Property Law Firms. Stim also produces audiobooks, such as Nolo’s Crash Course in Small Business Basics, and performs and records with two bands, MX-80 and angel corpus christi. You can also find Rich on Google Plus.