Ownership and transfer

Eligible owners

Who is the owner of a copyrighted work?

As a general rule, the author of a work is the first owner of copyright in a work. For an original literary, musical, dramatic and artistic work, it is the person who created or composed such work and for a sound recording and cinematograph film, it is the producer of such a work. In case of a photograph, it is the photographer. For computer-generated works, the author (ie, first owner of copyright) is the person who causes the work to be created.

The exceptions to this rule are covered in section 17 of the Copyright Act, as summarised below:

  • In the case of literary, dramatic or artistic works made by the author in the course of his or her employment by the proprietor of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical under a contract of service or apprenticeship for the purpose of publication in the newspaper, magazine or periodical, then the proprietor of the publication shall be the first owner of the work for the purposes of its publication in a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical. In all other respects, the author is the first owner.
  • In the case of a work that is a photograph, painting, portrait, engraving or cinematograph film that has been created at the instance of any person for valuable consideration, then such person is the first owner of the copyright in the work. However, this does not affect the rights of an author in any original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work that is incorporated in a cinematograph film.
  • In the case of Indian Heritage Society & Anr v Meher Malhotra & Anr [CS(OS)No. 2717 of 2011], the Delhi High Court granted a permanent injunction in favour of the plaintiff who was not the photographer, but was held to be the first owner of copyright in the photographs. This was because it was at the plaintiff’s instance that the photographs were taken for a valuable consideration paid to the photographer.
  • In the case of a work created by an author in the course of his or her employment under a contract of service or apprenticeship, then the employer is the first owner of the work. However, this does not affect the rights of an author in any original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work that is incorporated in a cinematograph film as has been clarified by the 2012 amendments to the Copyright Act.
  • In the case of any address or speech delivered, the person making the address or delivering the speech, or the person on whose behalf he or she does so, is the first owner of the work.
  • In the case of a government work, the government is the first owner of the work.
  • In the case of a work made or first published by a public undertaking, the public undertaking will be the first owner of the work.
  • In the case of works created by international organisations, the international organisation would be the first owner of the work.
Employee and contractor work

May an employer own a copyrighted work made by an employee?

If a person in the course of his or her employment under a contract of service or apprenticeship creates any work, his or her employer becomes the first owner of the copyright in the work so long as there is no contract to the contrary. Hence, an employer’s ownership is automatic by virtue of the employer-employee relationship. However, for any literary, musical, artistic and dramatic works that are incorporated in a film, the employer does not become the first owner of the copyright and the employee author retains the first ownership. A specific assignment of copyright in such a case is required by the employer.

May a hiring party own a copyrighted work made by an independent contractor?

In the absence of an assignment in favour of the hiring party, the first owner of the copyright is the independent contractor. The hiring party would have only an equitable right to use the material created for the purpose of hiring or commission, and possibly against any assignment detrimental to such use.

To own the copyright, the hiring party would have to obtain an assignment in writing from the independent contractor.

Joint and collective ownership

May a copyrighted work be co-owned?

Yes. Work of joint authorship is established only when the work is produced by the collaboration of two or more authors where the contribution of one author is not distinct from the contribution of the other author or authors.

Transfer of rights

May rights be transferred?

Yes. Copyright and neighbouring rights can generally be transferred by assignment, by testamentary disposition or by inheritance.

However, moral rights are not assignable. Furthermore, with the amendment of the Copyright Act in 2012, authors of literary or musical works that are included in cinematographic films or sound recordings have the inalienable right to receive royalties for exploitation of their works, and this right to receive royalties cannot be assigned by the author to anyone except his or her own legal heirs or to a copyright society for the purpose of collection and distribution of royalties. Additionally, apart from other specific requirements listed in the Copyright Act for a valid assignment (eg, identifying the work, right assigned, territory, duration), it is also necessary to specify both the royalty and other consideration payable in the assignment agreement and this may also be applicable for licence agreements.


May rights be licensed?

Yes, the owner of a copyright may either license the entire copyright or the licence may be confined to one or more interest in the copyright. The copyright may be licensed to more than one person non-exclusively. However, a licence would not result in change of ownership in a work. Like assignment, the grant of any licence is also required to be in writing and the details of work, territory and term should be specified. If it is not specified, the term shall be presumed to be five years and the territory shall be presumed to be restricted to India only. A licence agreement needs to be in writing. However, there is no requirement for it to be signed as is mandatory for assignment agreements.

Are there compulsory licences? What are they?

Yes. The Copyright Board is empowered to grant compulsory licences with regard to Indian and foreign works. Some of the purposes for which compulsory licences may be granted are:

  • when a work has been withheld from the public because the owner of the work has refused to grant a licence to republish or perform the work;
  • a work or a translation thereof has been withheld from the public because the author of the work is dead or cannot be found, or because the copyright owner cannot be found; and
  • a compulsory licence is required for making a work available to persons with disabilities.

The Copyright Act also provides for statutory licences to broadcasters and statutory licences for cover versions.

Are licences administered by performing rights societies? How?

Yes. Performing rights societies (ie, the Indian Performing Right Society Limited (IPRS), the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) and the ISRA) are forms of ‘copyright societies’ for collection, licensing, administration and enforcement of rights. Such copyright societies are required to be registered as such under section 33 in order to legally continue the business of granting licences and collecting royalties. In the absence of valid registration, Courts have struck down the licences granted by such societies (see Leopold Café Stores v Novex Communications Pvt Ltd). Further, post the 2012 Amendments, the newly inserted section 33(3A) required all previously registered copyright societies to re-register themselves. However, a few music-collecting societies refused to do so and, as a result, the legality of their business was under question. After some investigations, one of the societies re-registered itself as a copyright society, although a few enquiries related to its management. These societies collect performance royalties for literary and musical works and for sound recordings and cinematograph film. There are two other copyright societies, namely the Indian Reprographic Rights Organisation (IRRO) and the copyright society for singers as performers, the ISRA, which was duly registered in 2013.


Is there any provision for the termination of transfers of rights?

A copyright may be transferred in one of two ways, namely by assignment or by licensing; licences may be exclusive or non-exclusive.

Assignments can be in part or in full in a future or existing work subject to statutory presumptions such as the term, unless specified otherwise in the agreement or unless the agreement provides a contingency. Rights not utilised in a work within a period of one year from the date of assignment or license are deemed to lapse back to the assignor.

An assignment more than five years old can by revoked by the Copyright Board if the author can show that it is, or has become, onerous. Transfers of rights might also, conceivably, be held to be unlawful under the law of contract. Again, a licence would normally be liable to termination if the licensee failed to comply with the conditions of the licence.


Can documents evidencing transfers and other transactions be recorded with a government agency?

Yes. If the copyright in a work has been registered with the Copyright Office and its particulars have been recorded in the Register of Copyrights, then transfer of ownership may be recorded in the Register pursuant to an application to the Registrar of Copyrights in a prescribed form, along with a prescribed fee.