© Basics: Assignment

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!

Stop, Collaborate + Listen

[This post is a week late because I was in bed with the flu last week. Thank you all for your patience!]

Listen up good guys, because this just might be one of the most important posts I make on this blog. Today I’m going to give you some good old fashioned practical tips on collaborating.

Because here’s the thing – collaborations can be hard. They can be fun, invigorating and uplifting too, but the line between a successful collaboration and a messy one can be thin sometimes. Like any relationship, communication is key.

step 1

Yep, I mean all. of. it. It’s all about the open channels of communication. Until you sit down and have an honest-to-God conversation with each other, you can’t possibly know whether you’re on the same page about all the aspects of your collaboration.

You need to talk about the project:

–> What are you creating?
–> What is its purpose?
–> How do you want it to feel?
–> What should it look like?

You need to talk about your process:

–> How do you work?
–> Do you prefer to write on your own and discuss together later? Or do you expect to sit together most days and create?
–> Are you a one draft or a many drafts kind of person?

You need to talk about YOU – your priorities, your strengths, your weaknesses:

–> What is most important to you about this project?
–> What are you best at?
–> What are your weaker areas?
–> What are you sensitive about? (Be honest now, are you likely to get a little pissy if she corrects your grammar?)
–> How are you with deadlines?

You need to be a truth teller here, both to yourself and your collaborator.

You need to talk about the legals, the business practicalities and money:

–> Will you be writing separate sections?
–> How will you share ownership in your collaboration? (See my post on collaborations and copyright ownership)
–> What will you charge for your creation and how will you split the money?
–> How will you decide whose name goes first?
–> How will you market your product?
–> What things can you each do without the other person’s permission, and what things should you check with each other about first?

You won’t know that answers to all of these questions at the beginning of your collaboration, and some of it will evolve as you go along and your creation takes shape. But you should try to talk about as much of these things as possible from the beginning. Firstly because it establishes a good dialogue right from the start, so you’ll be comfortable talking to each other if unexpected or difficult issues pop up. Secondly because you should not assume that you know what the other person wants and how they work. Even when they’re your best friend, you can be surprised.

Step 2

If I could choose just one piece of advice to bang people over the head with, this would be it. When I worked in centres and clinics that provided creators with legal advice, I cannot tell you how many times the following scenario played out:

  • Group (often a band) comes in for legal advice because they’ve had a dispute with one of their group members
  • The dispute is about one of the things I’ve mentioned under Step One – money, or who owns what, or whether the band member can perform the song solo without the rest of the group, etc., etc.
  • Group members have never had a proper conversation about these things because “there was no need” because “we’re good mates”
  • For the same reason, nothing has been written down
  • There is therefore no evidence of what was agreed way back when the song was written, or even if an agreement was reached.

It’s so common, you guys. The problem is that it’s very hard to help people when it’s just a case of he-said she-said.

So I repeat: write shit down. Write down everything you agree on when you discuss things with each other. If only for your own memory, because you may forget things down the track. It doesn’t have to be formal; it doesn’t have to be a contract. It’s just a record. And hopefully you’ll never need it to settle a disagreement, but if you do have a disagreement you’ll be glad to have this record, believe me.

And guess what? It’s your lucky day. Because I want to make things easier for you, I have a present. I’ve put together a little PDF worksheet for you, to help you work through the kinds of legal things you might want to discuss with each other when you decide to embark on a collaboration. This doesn’t cover everything – just the copyright stuff. And it’s by no means extensive: it only applies to copyright arrangements as between you and your collaborator. It doesn’t deal with other issues, like the copyright permissions that you grant to your audience. But it’s there as a guide, to help you get started. I hope you find it useful. You can download it here: Collaboration worksheet

Happy collaborating!

Implied licences

[This is the second post in a three-part series on collaborations. The first post is here.]

In a previous post I discussed the different forms of copyright licences. There is one type of licence that I did not mention there and that is the implied licence.

The law will sometimes imply a licence in certain circumstances, even without any positive act by the copyright owner to grant a licence. Where work is provided for a particular purpose, then the law may imply a licence to use the work for that purpose.

Implied licences may be relevant to collaborations because often work is provided to fulfill a particular purpose. Let’s take the example where Sansa and Arya collaborate on an e-book with the intention that the book be used to promote subscribers to their blogs. In that situation there may be an implied licence granted to each other to use the e-book for that purpose, such as by posting extracts of the book on their blogs or giving readers copies of the e-book in exchange for signing up to a mailing list. Similarly, when Daenerys does the design for the e-book knowing that the girls intend to make the book available on their blogs, there may be an implied licence that Dany gives the girls permission to put the designed book, including her published edition copyright, on their blogs.

Implied licences can be a helpful safety net where you have already collaborated with someone else and then engaged in the kind of conduct described above (such as posting extracts to your blog) without that person’s express permission. But the problem with implied licences arises because of their very nature – they must be implied by a court after the fact and usually after a dispute. They are uncertain and therefore an unsteady legal foundation on which to rely.

The better alternative is always to talk with your collaborators about the nature of your collaboration and what you can and can’t do with the resulting work. Express agreement trumps an implied licence every time. Next week’s post (the third in my series on collaborations) will address what you should be doing and talking about right from the beginning of your collaboration.