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What is a Collective Work?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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A collective work typically refers to a written or otherwise recorded work that features the contributions of multiple artists. Examples of this could include an anthology of short stories or poems, a novel written by several people, and a CD or other recording containing songs composed and performed by several artists. The reason that this term needs to be understood from a legal perspective is because many countries have specific rules regarding copyright status of collected works.

There are a number of ways to approach assembling a collective work. One of these is to ask artists to sign over rights to reproduce their work in the future. They might do this for a specific amount of money and the person assembling the work would then have full rights to reproduce each individual work in any manner in the future. The artist would not have these rights any more.

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As can be imagined, this approach is not very popular because the artist gives up rights to use his artwork or to make profit from it in the future. What most often occurs instead is that the artist grants the compiler of the collective work one-time use of the work for a specific publication. This may be free use or it could be associated with a monetary fee. In order for the artist to be assured of his rights, he needs to do more than grant permission for one time use. He also has to make sure that he has an individual copyright.

Actually, there are two forms of collective work copyrights that help establish ownership and rights. The person/s compiling the work copyrights the whole collective work, while the individual contributors get protection for their contributions. It is worth restating that these laws differ from region to region, and it’s important for people to be familiar with laws in the country in which they live.

A copyright for the compiler speaks to the arrangement the person has made of the collected work; someone else can’t take the same poems, short stories, or other works and arrange them in the same way while also taking advantage of any commentary, notes, or personal works of the compiler. An individual copyright just covers single artist contributions, allowing artists to reproduce their work for profit in the future. Individual artists don’t have rights, unless agreed upon, to make money from the collective work or to reproduce the collective work. Those rights are accorded to the compiler/arranger solely.

In countries like the US, laws state that the individual always holds copyright unless it can be proven that transfer of ownership took place. Most attorneys advise individuals not to stand on the hope this law works effectively, and recommend that potential contributors get personal copyrights. Copyright lawyers also suggest anyone planning to put together a collective work seek attorney guidance on filing the requisite forms. A few regions make it possible to file without the help of an attorney, but the complexities of copyright law suggest seeking assistance may be a way to minimize future problems.

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