Copyrighting Collective Works

The Copyright Act defines a “collective work” as an assemblage into a collective whole of a number of individual contributions, each of which constitutes a separate and independent work, and gives as examples periodicals, anthologies, and encyclopedias. A collective work is also referred to as a “compilation.” Under the Copyright Act, copyright in a collective work is distinguished from copyright in a contribution to the collective work. An author of a collective work has a copyright only in the material that he or she contributes to the collective work. The authors of the individual contributions to the collective work continue to hold the copyrights in those works.


The owner of the copyright in a collective work is presumed only to acquire the privilege of reproducing and distributing a contribution as part of the collective work or a revision of a collective work unless an agreement to the contrary is made between the author of the collective work and the author of the individual contribution. The United States Copyright Office allows authors to obtain a separate copyright registration for a contribution to a collective work. For publication of a series of contributions within a period of one year, the Copyright Office provides a registration for a group of contributions to a periodical.


The United States Supreme Court has held that periodicals such as newspapers may not sell individual articles from their periodicals to other publishers when the individual articles are not presented as part of the collective work, for example, in electronic databases or CD-ROM products, without the permission of the authors of the individual articles. In reaching that decision, the Supreme Court rejected arguments by newspapers and publishers that the databases and CD-ROMs constituted a revision of the original collective work, the copyright in which extended to the author of the collective work. The Supreme Court noted that when an article was found by a search of a database or CD-ROM, it appeared alone and not with the other articles that appeared in the original periodical; thus, it could no longer be considered part of the collective work.

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