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Conceptualizing Copyright Assignments & Licenses Part – I

This blog series is intended to conceptualize the principles behind copyright assignments and licenses.

Copyrights, like any other Intellectual Property Rights are considered a part of Property Rights and hence can be transferred just as corporeal properties. This transfer of ownership under Copyright Law happens in three different ways; first, by executing an Assignment deed; Second, by executing a License Agreement; and third, by transmission of rights by way of operation of law. In this post, I will analyze the concept of Copyright Assignment and the relevant legal provisions with respect to Assignment of Copyrights in India.

Meaning of Copyright Assignment

The term ‘assignment’ essentially means an agreement between two parties, wherein one party (assignor) completely transfers his/her ownership, right, title and interest over a certain copyrighted work to another party (assignee). Assignment of copyright is akin to the sale of tangible property. Once the assignment deed is executed between parties, the original copyright owner has no rights over the ‘assigned rights’ in the assigned work.

Section 18(1) of the copyright Act, 1957 states:

“The owner of the Copyright in an existing work or the prospective owner of copyright in a future work may assign to any person the copyright either wholly or partially and either generally or subject to limitation and either for whole term of the copyright or any part thereof”

The elements of Section 18(1) can be summarized as follows:

1) The Copyright owner has the right to assign rights in existing works as well as future works. However, an assignment with respect to future works shall take effect only when the work comes into existence.

2) Copyrights may be assigned either as a whole or in part. Copyrights are a bundle of rights that include distribution rights, translation rights and adaptation rights. Even these individual rights can further be divided on the basis of platforms, modes, media or formats on which such rights are exercised. For example, in the case of a sound recordings, distribution rights can be divided as digital rights, mechanical rights, performance rights and mobile rights. The owner of a copyrighted work may either assign all these rights to a single assignee or may separately assign such rights to different assignees.

3) The assignor may impose certain limitations on the assignee while assigning rights. Although, the assignment means complete transfer of ownership, interests and rights in the assigned works, the assignor is free to place certain restrictions on the exercise of assigned rights. For example, in the case of assignment of publication rights in a literary work, the author of the work may specifically include clauses detailing the manner in which the book needs to be published and promoted, failing which the assigned rights shall be reverted to the author.

4) Copyrights, in a particular work may be assigned either for the term of the copyright or for a certain specified term as mutually agreed between the parties. Unlike a sale deed for tangible properties, wherein products are sold for perpetuity, in copyright assignments, the author has an option to limit the term for which rights are granted to the assignee. The assignee shall remain the sole owner of assigned copyrights in the assigned work for the specified term and these rights shall revert to the assignor after the term of the assignment. In order to protect the interests of the assignee it is advisable to include the term of the agreement as perpetuity.

In subsequent posts, authors will discuss modes of assignment and the relevant clauses to be included in an effective Assignment Deed.

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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