Related: Who owns copyright on works found in a storage unit/attic?

It's well agreed in the above case that simply coming into ownership of a manuscript, even an original one, does not grant copyright.

Is it legally possible to create a bearer document granting copyright ownership? This would work similarly to bearer paper in other contexts, such as stock. The person who legally owned the bearer paper would automatically become the owner of the included copyright.

For example, suppose I write a novel that I never publish, instead stuffing it under my bed. I write out and sign a bearer deed granting copyright in the work to whomever legally owns the deed, and then slip it under the pillow of my favorite niece on her 18th birthday. When I die, my son argues in court that the transfer of copyright by bearer deed is "unrecognized in law and entirely null and void" and asks the court to subject the copyright to probate as part of my estate. Is there any precedent to indicate what would likely happen?

To be clear, this question does not cover theft in any way. Ordinary bearer paper (e.g. bearer checks, bearer stock certificates) do not grant ownership to persons who have stolen the certificates, but only to their legitimate owners. What would happen if someone physically stole/sticky fingered/yoinked, etc. the bearer deed to the copyright of my novel is out of scope.

2 Answers 2


In the US, you can transfer copyright to another person. This can be done "by any means of conveyance" as well as by law (e.g. intestate succession). Done via a document that transfers title, the main issue is that there could be multiple documents of conveyance that say the same thing, thus there could be 12 equal owners of the copyright. Depending on your goal in issuing a "bearer-copyright", this could be a good thing or a bad thing.


The idea of bearer copyright seems attractive, especially in light of the hypothetical of the fading-storage-locker-masterpiece. As user6726 points out, one obvious way to create bearer copyright is through conveyances. However, as he also points out, there are problems with using conveyances. These problems could be avoided by putting the copyright into a trust, to be administered for the benefit of the owner of the underlying work.

While the trust solves some of the problems with using conveyances, it may create other, even more serious problems. The most obvious is that its costs may swamp any benefits it provides. Take the case of the fading-storage-locker painting. The benefit of giving the buyer of the painting copyright was allowing him to make a copy to avoid sun-damage. This may easily be worth less than the cost of setting up and administering the trust. A second problem is trustees may not always agree with the owner about how to use the copyright. Controlling wayward trustees can also be costly.

Given how many copyrighted works are created every year, the total cost of this system seem likely to be larger than the total benefits it produces. This is the definition of "socially wasteful."

For the particular problem of the fading painting, the easiest solution may be to get courts or legislatures to recognize a fair-use exception for owners of the physical work to make a copy of the original for safe-keeping. The copy of course would have to be destroyed after the original is transferred to a new owner. Enforcing this exception would be tricky.

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