Who owns the rights to your website if you write a book about it?
November 3, 2000 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Who owns the rights to your website if you write a book about it?
Michael J. Hammel posed this question today on a mailing list that I am on.
posted by tamim (7 comments total)
The answer to your question is that there is no general principle, no general answer.

It's an issue of contract law and totally a matter of precisely what was in the specific contract which was signed in this particular case. A copyright owner can sell their copyright; it's a commodity. If they do sell it, they no longer have any more right to the material than I do; the new owner of the copyright owns it and the old owner no longer does, just like with any other sale. (You can sell patents and trademarks, too.)

It may be that this particular guy wasn't careful about reviewing the contract before he signed it. If so, tough luck.

Selling of copyrights is extremely common and is big business. It's particularly common in music, for instance. Sir Paul McCartney is an extremely wealthy man, and much of his wealth is invested in ownership of copyrights to various pieces of music, from which he receives a significant stream of royalties. One of the major US universities pays Sir Paul every time their band plays the university "fight!" song at a football game, because he owns the copyright on the music.

He is extremely frustrated by the fact that he does not own the copyright on most of the music he wrote with John Lennon. Those are owned by Michael Jackson, of all people. McCartney has made several offers to trade other copyrights, and of outright money, but Jackson has refused to sell. McCartney really wants them back, but he's SOL.

They were lost because they were part of the assets of Apple Records, and were sold with the company. The new owner then sold the copyrights in order to recoup some of the money paid for the company. I don't remember exactly how Michael ended up with them.

Anyway, Sir Paul no longer has any more rights to "Penny Lane" than you do, even though he wrote it.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:26 PM on November 3, 2000

Here are all the legal documents relevant to the MathWorld case.
posted by tamim at 10:34 PM on November 3, 2000

Here's a brainfart: Examine the following alternate reality.

Copyright law can be re-examined with a Creator's Clause. In cases where there is conclusive evidence, documented proof or generally accepted public knowledge that unquestionably insured who was the originator, inventor, or creator of a given copyrighted property, said person henceforth has the permanent and inalienable right to do whatever they want with that which they created, short of selling said permanent and inalienable right. For the lifetime of the original inventor, a copyrighted property cannot be permanently sold to another entity. There is in essence a tether to the creator. In order to use his copyright, a corporate entity would be unable to treat copyrighted inventions and other properties like commodities. They would need to continuously appease the tethered owner. Any contracts that were worded in such a way as to attempt to arrest an inventor's inalienable tether to his or her work would immediately become null and void, and henceforth not hold up in court. Likewise, it would be illegal for an originating owner to sell his inalienable rights to his creation.

For example:
McCartney's rights to his music would immediately revert to him, and if Jackson wanted to continue using them, he'd have to appease McCartney. Jackson would no doubt find this unacceptable, but buyer beware. Irregardless of what he paid to have them before, Jackson's right to the McCartney-Lennon music would not take precedence over McCartney's inalienable right to his own creation. Since Lennon's dead, his right to the music does not revert to Yoko Ono or their offspring. This Creator Clause crumbles to dust at the death of the originator. You can't take it with you.

This would take the power away from corporate entities that barter the ingenuity of Man like shares in the stock market, and place it in the hands of those Thinkers who make this country and this world great.

In an ideal world... However, if one were to follow this line of thinking to an extreme, would it apply to adoption as well? Does the persons who concieve a child have an inalienable right to it? That's a form of creation, and many inventors and artists will often compare the act of such creation to giving birth. Sometimes my short stories and poetry feel like my children.

Would it be fair to the adopted parents of a child who have raised him or her to suddenly wake up one day and find that the child's birth parents have inalienable rights to that child?

McCartney created some great music, but perhaps somewhere earlier in his life he should have paid more attention to what contracts he signed and actions he made. I don't believe ANY artist or inventor should sell away their inalienable right to their creation, but if it's the only way to put food on the table, perhaps we should have the right to do that?

Like when we don't vote in elections, we have no right to bitch and moan about the results of our gov't. We complain anyway, but it's our own ignorance that is at fault. Should a law be invented that protects our inalienable rights to our creation? Or should we just stop signing contracts without reading them? =)
posted by ZachsMind at 11:02 PM on November 3, 2000

ZachsMind: the danger with the tether system is that creators may sometimes be able to earn less from their works if they don't have the right to give up their rights.

The problem is basically that publishers can't trust the creator not to turn around and relicense the copyright to someone else, so the value of the right to print an edition drops, and creators earn less for their work.
posted by grimmelm at 8:38 AM on November 4, 2000

About fifteen years before he died, Alfred Hitchcock took four of his best films, for which he retained the copyright, out of circulation and locked them in a vault. I don't remember all four, but two were "Vertigo" and "Rear Window", among his best films. He did this because they were assets in his will, and he wanted to leave his heirs things of great value. After he died, each of the four films was rereleased, earning enormous sums for his estate.

Copyright includes the right to suppress a work. It always has. If I have copyright on something, part of my right is to lock it up -- or to destroy it.

Zach, your idea would throw nearly all of commercial engineering into disarray. What about team efforts, where there is, in your words, conclusive evidence, documented proof or generally accepted public knowledge that various portions of the design were created by specific people?

Every piece of code I write has a change history at the top, where I write what I altered, along with a date and my initials. That would fit your condition.

So do the other 400 programmers on the last project I worked on.

So do the thousands of programmers who worked for Microsoft, either as contractors or as employees, in the development of their products.

So do the tens of thousands of engineers who work for GM in various capacity to help design cars.

How the heck do you sort out a case where a commercial product is partially owned by 5,000 people plus by a company who created it and is trying to sell it? Some of them made more contribution than others; do they get paid more? Can any of those 5,000 exercise his ostensible inaliable right and refuse to let his part of the code be distributed, thus shutting down production? Should any single engineer at GM be permitted to shut down the Saturn production line just because he's decided to exercise his copyright?

Completely impractical.

In fact, your idea hampers creators and reduces their rights. Why shouldn't they be permitted to sell their copyright? Sometimes they're exceedingly valuable, and the creator would rather have the money.

In the mean time, however, it would cause a collapse of our economy.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:48 AM on November 4, 2000

Well, the obvious solution to the issue raised by engineering is simply to declare that while coding is a creative activity, it is not art in the same sense a novel or a song is art. The "tether doctrine" would have to specify which specific types of works it applied to and it's clear it can't apply to all things. It might exclude works created as part of full-time employment but not contract workers, for instance (giving companies a reason to actually hire people instead of renting them).

Still, I agree that the idea that the artist can somehow retain control of his works even after he's sold said control away is essentially illogical, notwithstanding the perception that artists deserve more creative control than they generally have. I mean, suppose you want to be a rock star so badly that you're willing to give up almost all your rights and enter economic servitude to a record company just for a chance to be a star. If you do in fact end up being a star, it seems rather disingenuous to complain about it -- you got the fame you wanted, even if you traded almost all your rights away to get it, so quitcherbitchin already.

I might be in favor of a doctrine that would allow the nominal creator of a work to publicly perform them in perpetuity without paying royalties on them to the new owner, even after selling the rights -- it strikes me as perverse that a musician might have to pay royalties for perfoming their own song. I might be in favor of copyrights automatically reverting to the artist if the company that has bought them goes out of business and I might even be in favor of some statutory rule that ensures that if you resell a copyright you have bought outright, some portion of the capital gains will go to the original artist.

Many of these things, of course, can be added simply by artists insisting on them in their contracts. Unfortunately there are, e.g., a lot more people who want to be rock stars than there are record companies, which means that the balance of power is firmly in the majors' favor. You wanna be a star, you play by their rules. Still, labels that offer more artist-friendly contracts could eventually end up with more talented artists, so there's some incentive to compete even among distributors of creative material, especially as alternate avenues of distribution become viable. Robert Fripp's Discipline Global Mobile label is founded on the princple that artists deserve creative control, and they have achieved major-label distribution for their records. The downside is that not every rock-'n'-roll wannabe is talented enough to measure up to the label's exacting standards. But these kinds of deals, along with the Internet, may in time erode the contruactual stranglehold record companies currently hold on music. Of course, the same applies to other creative media.
posted by kindall at 1:02 PM on November 4, 2000

Nah; you missed the obvious counter to Steven's assertion. The 'Tether Doctrine' as he proposed it does *not* preclude 'work-for-hire' as that term is currently used.

WFH would solve the problem Steven noted, without breaking any of the other potentially good advances of that proposed change.

Note too, that *any time* you see "you are not *allowed* to renounce this right" it's an attempt to protect individuals from grabby corporations. Or governments.
posted by baylink at 10:43 AM on November 6, 2000

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