There are many instruments and ways that ownership of copyright can be transferred to another party. Rights can be transferred by assignment, mortgage, exclusive or nonexclusive license, any other type of conveyance, or operation of law. Copyrights also may be bequeathed by will in whole or in part and may pass as personal property by applicable laws of intestate succession.
The exclusive rights granted by copyright may also be transferred:
to Numerous Persons: Copyright ownership may be transferred to one or more persons.
in Whole or in Part: The whole copyright in a work can be transferred in its entirety or the exclusive rights can be split up and transferred separately. Each right can also be further divided (for example, the copyright owner can grant a license to one company to distribute a movie in one region and another company to distribute in a different region)
by Exclusive or Nonexclusive License: The exclusive rights of a copyright owner may be licensed on an exclusive basis (i.e., copyright ownership in one or more rights is transferred by the copyright owner) or on a nonexclusive basis (i.e., the copyright owner retains ownership of the copyright and may grant similar licenses to others).
Differences Between Exclusive and Nonexclusive Licenses
The exclusive rights of a copyright owner may be licensed on an exclusive or nonexclusive basis. An exclusive license is one in which copyright ownership in one or more rights is transferred by the copyright owner. A nonexclusive license occurs when the copyright owner retains ownership of the copyright and/or may license the same right to others.
There are several differences between an exclusive and nonexclusive license:
Ability to Sue: An exclusive licensee of one or more of the exclusive right is considered to be the owner of those rights. As the owner, the exclusive licensee can sue for infringement of those rights. On the other hand, a nonexclusive licensee is not considered to be a copyright owner and thus cannot sue for any infringement of the copyright in the work by others.
Writing Requirement: Exclusive licenses must be in writing, but nonexclusive licenses do not have to be in writing.
Recording Transfers and Other Documents with the Copyright Office
Any transfer of copyright ownership (e.g., assignment of rights) or other document pertaining to a copyright, including copyright licenses, may be recorded with the U.S. Copyright Office. Upon submission of the appropriate form(s) and fee(s), the Register of Copyrights will record the document and return it with a Certificate of Recordation. There are several benefits to recording copyright transfers with the Office. Recording the documents with the Copyright Office gives people constructive notice of the facts stated in the recorded document. It also helps to determine priority in the case there are conflicting transfers.
Termination of Transfers
All licenses or transfers (e.g., assignments) of copyrights executed by the creator of a copyrighted work on or after January 1, 1978 may be terminated by the creator who signed the agreement or his or her heirs regardless of the terms of the agreement. This provision in the copyright law is commonly referred to as termination rights. This right can only be exercised during a five-year window that opens on thirty-fifth year after the agreement took effect. (Similarly, all licenses or transfers executed by creators or certain of the creator’s heirs prior to January 1, 1978 covering copyrights secured before that date also are terminable but the window for doing so is at the end of the fifty sixth year after the copyright was secured.)
The reason this provision is included in the copyright law is because Congress wanted to give creators and their heirs a second opportunity to make money from their efforts because they are often forced to sell their works before the actual worth of the works is established.