Transfer of Copyright

Lawrence E. Rosen lrosen at
Thu Feb 22 17:58:41 UTC 2001

There was an earlier posting asking about how copyrights are transferred.

The issue of copyright transfer is a very important one for open source
projects, but one that is often ignored.  One important consideration is
that only the legal or beneficial owner of an exclusive right under a
copyright is entitled to institute an action for any infringement of that
right.  This means, for example, that if an open source project releases
code owned by many contributors, under the GPL or any other license, the
project managers do not have standing to sue to enforce the license as to
that code.  Only the actual copyright owner can sue.

The Copyright Act (17 USC §204) reads in part:

   A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law,
   is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or
   memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the
   owner of the rights conveyed or such owner's duly authorized

I copy below some information on copyright transfer from the website of the
Library of Congress.  For further information, see

******************************* Copied from LOC website:


Any or all of the copyright owner's exclusive rights or any subdivision of
those rights may be transferred, but the transfer of exclusive rights is not
valid unless that transfer is in writing and signed by the owner of the
rights conveyed or such owner's duly authorized agent. Transfer of a right
on a nonexclusive basis does not require a written agreement.

A copyright may also be conveyed by operation of law and may be bequeathed
by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate

Copyright is a personal property right, and it is subject to the various
state laws and regulations that govern the ownership, inheritance, or
transfer of personal property as well as terms of contracts or conduct of
business. For information about relevant state laws, consult an attorney.

Transfers of copyright are normally made by contract. The Copyright Office
does not have any forms for such transfers. The law does provide for the
recordation in the Copyright Office of transfers of copyright ownership.
Although recordation is not required to make a valid transfer between the
parties, it does provide certain legal advantages and may be required to
validate the transfer as against third parties. For information on
recordation of transfers and other documents related to copyright, request
Circular 12, "Recordation of Transfers and Other Documents."


/Larry Rosen
lrosen at

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