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Sometimes I see copyright notices like

Copyright © 2016-2018 The TokTok team.

Copyright © 2013 Tox project.

I wonder if I can use similar copyright notices in a project of mine (licensed under GPL). The are some closely related questions: What defines a team? What happens if the team grows? Is some paperwork or registration necessary or the use of a version control system (VCS) makes it unnecessary? As you know, VCSs record the evolution of a project, the time and amount of contributions made by each developer.

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In US law the elements of a copyright notice are 1) the copyright symbol or the word "copyright or the abbreviation "copyr"; 2) the year of publication or creation; and 3) the name of the copyright owner. More specifically, under 17 USC 401 (b)(3) the third element should be:

(3) the name of the owner of copyright in the work, or an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of the owner

As a "team" is not generally a legal entity (unless it is incorporated) it cannot be the actual owner of the copyright. The owner in such cases will usually be the company for which the members of the team work, or possibly the individual members of the team as co-owners. Or some other entity may hold the copyright. The name of the team may serve as "a generally known alternative designation of the owner".

Moreover, even if the name shown is simply wrong, 17 USC 406 (Copyright notice: error in name or date) provides in pertinent part:

... where the person named in the copyright notice on copies or phonorecords publicly distributed by authority of the copyright owner is not the owner of copyright, the validity and ownership of the copyright are not affected. In such a case, however, any person who innocently begins an undertaking that infringes the copyright has a complete defense to any action for such infringement if such person proves that he or she was misled by the notice and began the undertaking in good faith under a purported transfer or license from the person named therein [unless copyright office records would have disclosed the true owner].

So, such a notice opens up the possibility of someone purporting to grant licenses in the name of the "team". But unless this is a concern, the exact name used in the notice does not really matter. And if it is a concern, copyright registration, or recording the copyright with the US copyright office, will deal with the issue.

Note that a copyright notice is optional for any unpublished work and for any work first published since 1989. (The effective date of the change in US copyright law to comply with the Berne Convention.) However the presence of a valid notice does offer some legal advantages to the copyright owner under US law.

The use of a VCS does not in any way affect the copyright status of a work, nor does it change the effect of a copyright notice or its absence. It might be evidence of the date of creation of a work, if that was challenged in an infringement suit, but that is not commonly an issue in such a suit.

Copyright registration affords additional legal rights to the owner(s), and must indicate the actual name(s) of the copyright owner(s). Agreements to transfer copyright must be in writing, and signed (but could be electronic).

If the copyright is actually co-owned by the members of a team, it would be very wise of them to have a contract spelling out who does and who does not own a share of the copyright. Otherwise if they later disagree, and the matter comes to court, evidence of who actually was a co-author would be needed, and might be troublesome to produce. VCS records might be useful in such a case. If the copyright is in fact owned by a company, either on a work-made-for-hire basis or on an assignment basis, a contract between the company and all co-creators will be essential, or at least highly desirable, spelling this out in detail. But none of this affects any third party this is all important only between team members and any company involved.

Note that this answer is enti8rely concerned with US law. While copyright law is broadly similar in most countries, the details vary.

  • Under agency laws, a "joint venture" may be deemed to be a de facto partnership, with resulting ownership of the copyright by the partnership. Absent contract to the contrary, one may presume equal ownership and liability. For copyright registration, all partners would need to be named as "joint owners", absent some other recorded entity name (dba partnership, LLC, LP, corporation, etc). – Upnorth Sep 3 at 15:51

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