Most people think that whoever actually makes a creative work owns the copyright in that work, but that often isn't the case. Artists, authors and musicians can transfer copyright ownership or license certain rights of copyright ownership to other parties. Sometimes multiple people can also simultaneously have ownership of the copyright in a creative work.
When Creators Don't Own Copyrights
Here are some examples of when the creator of a work doesn't own the copyright in the work:
Work Made for an Employer
When the creator of a work is an employee of a business, the business owns the copyright as long as the employee created the wok within the scope of their employment.
Work for Hire
Companies sometimes hire independent contractors, and the copyrights in the work that those independent contractors produce rests with the hiring company.
The Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101) governs what qualifies as a work for hire:
a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.
Work Sold to Another
It's possible for the creator of a work to sell the entire copyright to someone else. At that point, the creator assigns all their rights in the work to the other person.
Joint Copyright Ownership
If a work has two creators and their contributions are inseparable and part of a single creation, the work is considered a "joint work", and both authors have ownership of the copyright.
Unless the creators agree to a different arrangement, each can take advantage of one of the rights included in the copyright (see below) as long as both creators share the income equally.
Copyright Ownership Rights
There are several basic rights that come along with a copyright. These rights are spelled out in 17 U.S.C. § 106:
(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Because there are so many rights associated with each type of creative work, creators can sell or license certain rights or combinations of rights. This adds a great deal of flexibility when it comes to copyright ownership.
Methods of Transferring Copyrights
Most of the time, a creator will need to transfer some or all of the rights to the work in order to market it. If the creator transfers all ownership rights with no limitations, it is known as an "assignment"; if the creator transfers only some of the rights or places a time limit on the transfer, it is known as a "license".
There are many ways that copyrights can change hands. Besides an assignment or a transfer, copyrights can act as a security for an obligation or can transfer upon an owner's death. A court can also order the transfer of a copyright in certain situations, such as a divorce.