Copyright is sometimes called “intangible property” and, like property, it is possible to transfer ownership of a copyrighted work from one person to another.
A transfer of copyright ownership is called an assignment. It is possible to make a complete assignment of ownership to another or a partial assignment so that only a particular right (such as the right of publication) is assigned but the rest are not. Like licences, it is also possible to limit an assignment to a particular place or for a specified time. Often, assignments are given in exchange for payment.
The important thing to remember is that upon assignment there are no residual rights left with the former owner. The former owner will need to ask the new owner for permission to use the work even if the former owner created the work. Legally, the work is not theirs anymore.
To be effective, an assignment must be in writing and signed by the person giving the assignment. This requirement was much simpler to navigate pre-internet, when you needed to sign an actual physical document. In the online environment, however, courts have accepted that a signature can be constituted by clicking the “I agree” box at the end of an online contract. These contracts are often called click wrap agreements. This is why it’s important to read at least the copyright section of those boring online terms of service, full of legalese in small print, that everyone just scrolls past to get to the “yes” or “I agree” box at the end. You don’t want to be accidentally signing away your copyright.
I’m going to be doing the hard work for you (lucky you!) – in upcoming posts I will pull apart the terms of service for Facebook, Instagram, WordPress and other online services and I will explain the most important things that you need to know about your rights and obligations when using these platforms. If there are any services in particular that you’d like me to cover, please let me know in the comments!