When an individual writes a novel, he owns all rights over the manuscript until he starts selling those rights to others.

What is the situation when the novel is a collaborative work? How are such rights as "first publication rights" and "movie rights" defined when the rights are held jointly by two individual authors? Obviously a duo can determine an individual agreement, but my question is what the "default" definition of the rights are absent a formal agreement.

Additionally, I would like to know whether on the death of one author, the rights are considered to revert to the collaborator, or to the author's estate. I could see strong intuitive cases in both directions, and would like to know what the ruling is in practice.

  • 2
    My lawyer advised me to specifically account for my intellectual property in my will to avoid that last problem. This is an area that is almost certain to vary by jurisdiction, so it's not safe to rely on defaults. Spell it out. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 18:03
  • @MonicaCellio: Right, but I'm asking: does a collaboration count as my intellectual property for this purpose? Or does it come under some different category?
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 18:12
  • I wouldn't assume there's a universal answer to that. Spelling it out covers all bases ("my interests in (work) go to (co-author)"). Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 18:51

2 Answers 2


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is a complicated area of law, but I'll give you the 30,000 foot view to get you started.

By default (at least, under U.S. law), each co-author owns an equal interest in the work's copyright. This is irrespective of how much (or how little) each co-author contributed to the work. So, absent of any agreement, if there are two authors, the split is 50/50, thirds for three authors, and so on.

For someone who collaborates on a work to be considered an "author," his contribution must be independently copyrightable. That means:

  • Someone who designs illustrations with the intent that they should be used in a specific book is a co-author (graphics designs are copyrightable)

  • Someone who composes the music for a song, or writes its lyrics, is a co-author (music and lyrics are copyrightable)

  • Someone who comes up with the general idea for a screenplay is not a co-author (ideas are not copyrightable)

  • Someone who researches population statistics for a geography textbook is not a co-author (facts are not copyrightable)

  • Someone who invents the algorithm for a new search engine (but does not write the actual computer code) is not a co-author (algorithms are non-copyrightable processes)

Each co-author can exploit the work in any way they seem fit (license the work, create derivative works, etc.), but they have to split all the profits with the other co-authors in equal parts. A co-author does not need to seek permission from the other co-author(s) to use the work, and likewise, a co-author cannot prevent the other co-author(s) from using the work.

An exception is the grant of an exclusive license, which requires the consent of all co-authors.

Co-authors' shares of a copyright are property interests that pass to their respective heirs.


  • This is great stuff! It's breathtaking how complicated this can get... A question - can somebody become a co-author without consent? E.g. Ernie composes music for the lyrics of Bert's poem... That can't be possible, right? So how do you define that the two people actually collaborated?
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 11, 2012 at 22:33
  • 1
    @Standback: All authors have to intend to merge their contributions into a single work at the time that they create them, otherwise they are not considered co-authors. For U.S. law (at least on the West Coast), there's a 4-factor test from Aalmuhammed v. Lee -- most important are whether the authors referred to themselves at co-authors at the time of creation, and whether their contributions have value standing by themselves (or are only valuable as part of the entire work). It does get complicated, no doubt. Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 15:14

As mentioned previously, if two or more contributors are considered as co-authors, they share in all revenue generated from the work. The exception would be if they had signed some form of agreement beforehand that permits one of the authors to act on behalf of the other(s), but this would be a rare situation.

In regards to the rights reverting to one author after the death of the other(s), it was also mentioned that the deceased author(s) copyright is passed on to the respective heirs, which is an important reason for identifying how you want those rights handled in your will.

The one thing that I would add is that the duration of the copyright is dependent on the last surviving author. Normally, the copyright would expire (in most countries) 70 years after the death of the author. In the case of multiple authors, the copyright is viable for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. That means that the heirs of the other author(s) could continue to benefit from the copyright even longer.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.