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If I hire John Smith for a NON-work-for-hire project to develop a cartoon logo for me (I specifically am using a non-work-for-hire example so that my question isn't clouded with all of the complexity of work-for-hire arrangements), and John Smith is a sole proprietor using a Doing Business As tradename, or John Smith is a single-member LLC, who is the author of the commissioned work when registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office? Is it John Smith, the natural person, or is it the business with whom I've executed a signed independent contractor agreement?

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  • It really doesn't matter as you are commissioning a work from John Smith and, upon acceptance of a work and payment, the copyright automatically transfers to you. You hired him to make you a logo for your product, while you may attribute it to him, you are the owner of the copyright once the commission deal is completed.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 19:07
  • It matters as far as the U.S. Copyright Office is concerned. That's why I asked the question. When I register the copyright with the Copyright Office they require that the author's name be entered on the registration form. Who's the author as far as the Copyright Office is concerned - the business or the natural person? I've edited my question to include the U.S. Copyright Office - sorry I wasn't more specific to begin with. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 19:22
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    @hszmv "upon acceptance of a work and payment, the copyright automatically transfers to you" That is not correct. Such transfer occurs only if there is an explicit written and signed agreement to make such a transfer, it does not happen by default. At least not under US law. Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 0:10

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John Smith, no one else

Sionce this isn't a work-for-hire situation, the client will not be the author of the work under US law. JS can transfer the copyright as part of the commission agreemnt, or in a later agreement, but the client will not be the "author". Since JS cannot be the employee of his own single-member LLC, the LLC is not the author either. JS may, if he chooses, transfer the copyright to the LCC, but the natural person will stay the author for legal purposes, and it is from the natural person's death date that the copyright term, will be calculated.

JS should be listed as the author in any copyright registration. If the copyright has been transferred, another person or entity can be listed as the current claimant.

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  • This confirms what the Copyright Office told me. Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 12:43
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John Smith or their employer

This isn’t you in either case.

On creation, the author of a work owns the copyright. Where the author is performing work for hire, their employer owns the copyright on creation. For a DBA, there is no other person than John Smith involved so they hold the copyright. For an LLC, this is a different natural person than John Smith and is employing him (even if he isn’t paid wages) on a work-for-hire basis so the LLC owns the copyright.

Since copyright in the US can only be transferred in writing and the contract you describe between you and the creator (whoever they are) doesn’t do that, you don’t own the copyright. If the contract is silent about licensing the work to you, it’s likely there is an implicit perpetual, royalty-free license allowing you to use the logo for the purposes contemplated by the contract. For example, if you a film producer making children’s television you can use the logo for that. If you later branch out and start making adult films, this is arguably outside the implicit licence - in countries other than the US such use would need the approval of the holder of the moral rights even if you owned the copyright.

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    I don't know why I didn't think of this before posting this question, but I called the Copyright Office and asked them this question. According to the person I spoke to, the only time a business name can be used as the Author in a copyright registration application is if the creator is an employee or the work qualifies as work-for-hire. I specifically asked about NON-work-for-hire contracts with DBAs and single member LLCs and he said the business name cannot be used in either case; the natural person's name must be used (which is my question). Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 20:28
  • "*For an LLC, this is a different natural person -" an LLC is not a natural person, and will not own the copyright by default. Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 0:03

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