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The Mystery of Joint Copyrights

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Co-writing with a friend, relative or colleague can be a wonderful experience. Remember, though, that when you intend to create a joint work by blending your individual contributions (such as a novel or memoir) and you do actually create it, you have entered the Twilight Zone of joint copyright ownership.

If the other person loses interest after contributing only for awhile and you finish the work, the two of you still jointly own the entire copyright. If the other person becomes disabled or dies, you will own that joint copyright with his or her spouse, guardian, child, or other relative who is controlling the estate or your writing partner’s legal affairs.

When you co-own a copyright, either person can enter into a contract to license that work to a third party. This means that your writing partner (or their estate!) can make commitments about publishing, distribution or other important “stuff” without telling you, and it’s perfectly legal so long as they share the funds received with you. Transfer of copyright, however, requires the written consent of all the copyright holders, so you are protected that way.

anne daltonA good way to address this situation is to have a joint copyright agreement before you begin your collaboration. The contract can be long or short, but should be tailored to your individual needs.  The contract should address possibilities – what happens to the copyright of the work if one of you loses interest, dies or becomes disabled? Should the other person automatically own the copyright?  If the two of you do not agree on budgets or marketing expenditures or whether to self-publish or use a third-party publisher, you can address these very important matters before any problems arise.

As a writing friend recently put it, “writing collaboratively is a kind of marriage. And you definitely need a prenuptial agreement.”

Comments contained in this article are informational only and do not constitute legal advice. Please seek the advice of an attorney of your choice regarding specific factual issues.

This post previously appeared in the Fall 2014 issue The Florida Writer magazine.

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Anne Dalton, Esquire, has provided business and personal legal services to writers and other creatives in all phases of their creative development for nearly 40 years. She proudly serves as the General Counsel to the Florida Writers Association and is licensed in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania. Her credentials can be viewed at

2 Responses

  1. Sandra Elliot
    | Reply

    This is so true. Like buyer, beware, this warning not to enter into casual writing agreements thinking will work out well is right on. Friends and collaborators don’t always have the same goals. After a work is published, you can’t take it back.

    | Reply

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