Under US law, the initial copyright holder is the author of the work. In most cases, copyright law treats the creator(s) of the work as the author(s). Copyright is automatic; it applies to the work as soon as it is fixed (or recorded) in some way.
If multiple people created the work, only those who have contributed copyrightable elements are considered authors for the purpose of copyright law. Coming up with the idea for the work alone is not enough to be an author. See Joint Works for more if you’d like to learn more about how having multiple authors affects how we think about copyright of the work.
If someone creates a work as an employee (or in certain cases, as a contractor), that person’s employer is considered the author of the work. See Works Made for Hire for more information on when a work is considered a work made for hire.
If two or more people make copyrightable contributions to a work with the intent that their contributions be merged into one whole, they are joint authors under US law. As joint authors, they hold equal shares of the copyright from the time the work is created. A joint rightsholder owes her co-rightsholders their shares of the profits from uses or licenses she makes of the work. Joint rightsholders can grant non-exclusive licenses unilaterally. To transfer the copyright or grant an exclusive license, all joint rightsholders must agree.
In the case of a “work made for hire,” the author under copyright law is the person who employed or commissioned the creator of the work, rather than the creator of the work herself. There are two ways a work can be a work made for hire. First, a work is a work made for hire if it is created by an employee who is acting within the scope of her employment. For example, if someone who works at an advertising agency creates an advertisement at work, that advertisement is a work made for hire. Second, a work is a work made for hire if it is commissioned “for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas,” and the commissioner and the creator of the work agreed in writing that it would be treated as a work made for hire.
The University of Michigan outlines its copyright policy in SPG 601.28: Who Holds Copyright at or in Affiliation with the University of Michigan. By default, the university holds copyright in works created by its employees within the scope of their employment, because they are works made for hire. The university’s copyright policy modifies that default for certain scholarly works by faculty. It also explains who is authorized to grant permission for use of works held by the university.
Under the policy, the university transfers the rights to faculty scholarly works back to their faculty creators, subject to certain conditions and exceptions. For instance, the transfer does not apply to software, grant deliverables, or commissioned works. In addition, the university retains the right to use the transferred works for educational and administrative purposes and to preserve, archive, and host the works in its institutional repositories.
The policy also states that, if the copyright to a work is held by the Regents (on behalf of the university), the unit most closely associated with the creation of the work controls its disposition. This means, for example, that the unit can authorize third parties to use the work. The exceptions to this rule are for software that is intended to generate revenue, software funded by a sponsored activity agreement, and deliverables of a sponsored activity agreement. These copyrights are managed by the Office of Technology Transfer.
Copyright law gives the author certain rights. In the United States today, those rights can be separated and subdivided. The author can give others permission to exercise some or all of those rights. That is called a license. If the author agrees only to give that permission to one entity at a time, it is an exclusive license.
If an exclusive license lasts until the end of the copyright term, it is a transfer of copyright. To be valid, a copyright transfer must be in writing and must be signed by the rightsholder or the rightsholder’s agent. The recipient of a copyright transfer can then license or transfer the copyright.
In the academic context, licenses and transfers of copyright are particularly common in publishing agreements. In many cases, the author transfers all or part of the copyright in her publication to the publisher.