Copyright Ownership – What Can You Do With It?

Although in most cases the economic and moral rights belong to the person who creates the work (see Copyright ownership), copyright is a form of property, which, like physical property, can be sold, bought, inherited or otherwise transferred, wholly or in part. A copyright owner can do a lot with their copyright.


An assignment transfers the full (all economic rights) or partial (some economic rights) ownership of the copyright from the author to another person (the assignee) who will then become the owner of the rights transferred. The rights or right can be assigned for a limited time or for a particular territory. The copyright in works that will be created in future can also be assigned. The author may assign the copyright for a fixed sum. In some cases, royalties may be paid. The assignee can then transfer all their economic rights by assignment, licence or otherwise. For example, a writer can assign all their economic rights to a publishing house in order for their book to be marketed and sold by the publishing house. The publishing house could then sell the adaptation and communication to the public right to a film company who wants to make a television miniseries of the work to be broadcast in the UK, but still retain the right of reproduction.


A licence gives someone permission to do the acts which the copyright owner is entitled to authorise or prohibit without infringing copyright. The way in which a licence operates varies (can be limited to a particular, time or specific types of uses) and can be exclusive (only the person to whom the licence has been granted has permission to act and the copyright owner promises to no longer act) or implied (for example a Court may imply that a licence exists to use copyright plans commissioned from an architect to build a property to those plans)

Retain particular aspects of their copyright

A copyright owner can assign or license particular rights and keep others for themselves to assign or license at a later date e.g. license the right of reproduction but retain the right of adaptation.

Waive their rights

An author may still hold some rights in a copyright work despite having assigned or licensed other aspects. In addition, moral rights cannot be assigned or licensed and can only be waived (if an author chooses not to use these rights) or pass on death. For example, an artist may license their copyright in a painting to a gallery that wishes to market this work and reproduce images of their work on advertising campaigns for an upcoming exhibition, for example on tea towels, mugs and calendars to be sold in the gallery gift shop or used in a television advertisement. However, if the artist has not waived their moral rights, they will still retain the ability to object to any derogatory treatment of their work

Testamentary Disposition

Economic rights and moral rights can be transferred in a will (or through laws on intestacy). In the case of joint authorship when one joint author dies, the share which belongs to that author may be transmitted through a will or under intestacy laws.

This business advice article is subject to Crown Copyright © 2012

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