You Think Co-Ownership Is a Challenge? Try Co-Authorship

This Kat, having recently had a bit of an uneasy time with the moors of literary England, sought refuge this week with one of his favourite IP topics—joint ownership. The topic usually comes up in the context of patent rights, particularly where mutual development by the partners results in inventorship by persons from both companies. Or the deep-pocket partner may require that it receive an ownership right in the patented invention made by the other partner. Truth be told, we IP practitioners can get quite legally prissy with clients when addressing joint ownership. "Stay from it at all costs", we implore. "IP laws don't really address the subject", which means "you parties will have to work out the nature of your relationship by contract. You'll never be able to cover everything that might be relevant for your joint ownership relationship, and the transaction costs in negotiating the terms of the joint relationship don’t' seem to be worth it." The client listens and more often than not he then replies—"Thank you for your advice, but you don't really understand the situation. Now please go forward as I have instructed you."

That is well and good—perhaps this Kat does not really understand the underlying context of joint development. But what happens when the circumstances hit much closer to home? In particular, what happens when there are joint authors of a chapter of a legal text and one of the joint authors discontinues his involvement in the project, but the updated text continues to contain content to which the erstwhile joint author has contributed? Given the time and research requirements, acceptance of this responsibility sometimes leads to a situation where there are co-authors of the chapter, and the co-authorship goes on for year to year (I shall pass over the tawdry possibility that senior partner X will instruct young associate Y to do most of the work, but Y's contribution is relegated, at best, to a brief comment in a footnote—"X thanks Y for his or her contribution in the preparation of this chapter.") It is assumed that the publisher will sort out the copyright ownership issue, either by licence or assignment. The issue is therefore not one of "co-ownership" per se, but co-authorship and the right of attribution: does the erstwhile author continue to have the right to be identified as a co-author, for as long as content that he has created is part of the updated contents (subject perhaps to a reservation such as—"Y was a co-author of this chapter until 2013")?

Under the basic principle of moral rights, an author has the right to be credited for the work—but not in all jurisdictions and not for all works. Most notably, in the U.S under federal law, moral rights apply explicitly only to works of visual art under the Visual Artists Rights Act, here. In many other jurisdictions, the attribution right applies broadly to all types of protected works. Against that backdrop, consider a contractual provision, drafted under an applicable U.S. state law, which provides that "the publisher may, but is not obligated, to continue to identify the co-author for as long as his contents are included in the updated chapter." Ab initio, the prospective co-author may seek to negotiate the provision so as to impose an obligation on the publisher, and the bargaining strength of the parties will determine the success of such an attempt.

But let's assume that the provision remains "as is" in the contract. Does this mean that the erstwhile co-author has no legal recourse? At the heart lies the question of the extent to which a party can waive his moral rights in a work and, if so, what is the necessary contractual language to give effect to such a waiver (naturally, the wavier question only arises if there is a right of attribution in the jurisdiction. In the absence of such a provision, such as for literary works in the U.S., the issue does not seem to be a matter of waiver but simply what is meant by the provision.) This Kat questions whether a provision, such as that suggested above, will satisfy the waiver requirements. Moreover, since the right of attribution is a form of moral rights, it is subject to the copyright/moral rights under the applicable local law. This means that the erstwhile co-author, if feeling aggrieved because the publisher chose not to continue to identify him as a co-author, could engage in forum-shopping to find a friendly jurisdiction in which to pursue his claim. (Over a decade ago this Kat considered the issue of forum-shopping in the context of moral rights, "Copyright, Moral Rights and the Choice of Law: Where Did the Dead Sea Scrolls Court Go Wrong?, 38 Houston Law Review 463 (2001)).

Apart from issues of contract law and copyright/moral rights law, this Kat wonders why a publisher would choose to submerge the identity of the erstwhile co-author. Perhaps the relationship between the co-authors is such that the remaining co-author will not continue with the project if the erstwhile co-author continues to be identified. Perhaps the publisher has marketing and promotional reasons to submerge the identity. Given, however, the basic expectation of any author to be identified with his work, this Kat finds it most curious that some publishers apparently will go to substantial lengths to reserve the right to withhold identification under certain circumstances. Whatever the reason, the situations in which the former co-author of an updated book chapter may not be identified by the publisher in a subsequent update suggests how the challenges of co-ownership can be transmogrified into the problem of co-authorship in the copyright/moral rights context.
You Think Co-Ownership Is a Challenge? Try Co-Authorship You Think Co-Ownership Is a Challenge? Try Co-Authorship Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, August 09, 2013 Rating: 5


  1. I wonder if the "may but not obligated" language is devised by a publisher's inhouse counsel in case of an act of stupidity (otherwise referred to as "inadvertent failure") on the part of that lawyers non-legal colleagues. In other words, it builds in a defence for breach if the author's name is left off.

  2. Well as someone who wrote half a book but could not be involved in later editions and was relegated from co-author to contributor.. I can say it becomes more about the publisher wanting to keep the ongoing people sweet.

  3. As a co-author as a legal text which the publishers seem to want to continue into further new editions, irrespective of whether I contribute or not, I have wondered about the moral rights issue. What drew my attention was that while the contract asserted my moral rights it gave the publishers the right to new editions and should I not be involved, to appoint new (co)-authors and to include my name and/or their names as authors, or not, as the publisher saw fit. So this goes beyond the 'act of stupidity' point that Alex makes. The contract is under the law of England and Wales. I wondered whether a pre-existing precedent was up-dated to take account of the introduction of moral rights but all the consequences of that weren't thought through. Isn't the effect of this clause to gut the moral rights, so - if it is not seen as a waiver -could it take effect. The contract also does not seem to deal with the views of continuing, pre-existing co-authors on the subject. There is an additional question here about the views of each set of authors as to the professional standing of the other. What for example if they have diametrically opposed views on a contentious issue: are there issues, say about integrity here?

  4. Anonymous at 12:56,

    Did you not contract away any moral rights you may have possessed? Without the actual particualrs it is difficult to know for certain, but from the little you share, it appears that you have indeed contracted away any future editions control.

  5. In response to Anonymous at 14:28, you may be relieved to hear that I did not agree to that particular set of clauses staying in, but I understand that a lot of people do - whether that is because they don't read contracts or lack bargaining power, I don't know.

  6. Anonymous at 15:36,

    Thanks, and good for you!


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