Joint ownership of Copyright – how does it work?

09 November 2023

You may have collaborated with a colleague on a shared research project. Perhaps you worked with others to develop new software or wrote a song with a music partner. Whatever the reason, there are times when joint ownership of intellectual property will occur, if two or more parties have been involved in its creation.

Co-ownership of copyright is often viewed positively by individuals involved. It seems only fair that both parties should get equal ownership over their work. However, from a legal perspective, joint ownership of copyright can be problematic.

What is copyright?

When you create something original, copyright allows you to protect your work from being copied or used without your permission. Copyright typically relates to creative work in the fields of music, literature, film, theatre, art or software development.

As the owner you can choose to capitalise on the copyright, either by granting licences for others to use your work, selling the copyright or profiting from the work yourself.

For example, the author of a play may grant a certain theatre company licence to perform the play for a certain period, in return for a fee. Similarly, a musician who owns the copyright to a song will receive royalties every time their song is used or performed.

How does joint ownership of copyright work?

In the UK you do not have to register copyright. As soon as the work is recorded in writing or another form, copyright is automatically assigned to the creator or creators.

For joint ownership to occur, the individual parties’ contributions must be inseparable from the other. If, however, each party have contributed a specific, definable component to the final product, they would have sole ownership of their individual contribution.

For example, if a children’s book is written by an author, and an artist has provided all the illustrations, the author would own copyright of the text of the book, whilst the artist would have full ownership of the illustrations. The copyright of the children’s book would not be co-owned. To sell the book would require permission from both parties but either could choose to sell their own contribution separately if they chose to.

 However, if two developers collaborated to create a new app, and both worked on all elements of the app’s creation, without distinct roles, they would automatically have joint ownership of the whole completed app.

Disputed ownership

Disputes can occur as to who really hold a claim to the copyright. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 establishes the co-ownership of copyright, requires the following:

Collaboration – working together as a team, with both parties having a shared plan and creating together.

Sufficient contribution – each party’s contributions must be substantial. Simply critiquing another’s work or providing ad-hoc suggestions is not sufficient if not part of a wider contribution.

Inseparable contributions – Contributions from each party must be indistinguishable from each other, as mentioned previously.

Why can joint ownership be problematic?

If copyright is jointly owned, each party has the right to exploit the intellectual property themselves. However, they are prohibited from licensing it out or selling to a third party without the consent of the other co-owners.

This can immediately become very restrictive, especially if a dispute arises between the co-owners. Without consent of the other party, neither co-owner is able to exploit the work. The value of the copyright is locked-in, without anyone being able to make any profit from it.

For example, if a business designed a new piece of software, but engaged an external contractor to help work on the project, this external developer would – unlike an employee of the business – have co-ownership of copyright. This could then become problematic when the business seeks to sell the software, if they find that the contractor refuses to grant consent.

How to protect joint ownership of copyright

To avoid this sort of commercially compromising situation, a clear joint ownership arrangement can to be agreed from the outset. This agreement should clarify some of the following rights of the co-owners to:

Exploit the copyright themselves.

Take legal action against any illegal use of the right

Grant licences to third parties to use the copyright.

Assign or sell the copyright 


Another way to simplify ownership of the copyright is to agree that one party has full ownership of the rights but licences the copyright to the other party. This arrangement may suit some contexts more than others, and would need permission from all parties to be valid.

However you decide to proceed, having a written agreement will help to avoid any future deadlock between the parties. Ideally have the agreement in place before starting work together, in order to fully protect everyone’s interests.

The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for general information purposes only.

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