It's axiomatic that intellectual property rights are transferable. A change of ownership of physical property can be evidenced by a change of possession; not so with intellectual property (IP). For this reason, IP transfers should always be embodied in a written instrument. Indeed it's often is a legal requirement that IP transfers be in writing.
This short post is about the use of such instruments to transfer the IP rights in software.
Transfers of this kind may also be referred to as “assignments”. I use the terms interchangeably in this post.
The first owner of the intellectual property rights in a computer program will usually be the individual or individuals who created the software: the developer or developers, or his or her or their employer. Typical situations where a transfer of rights will be required include:
- where software has been commissioned by a customer on the basis that the customer will acquire ownership;
- where a developer is adapting or creating a module for a pre-existing software owned by the customer;
- where a business or business unit is being acquired (i.e. a business acquisition rather than a share acquisition).
Whatever the circumstances, the first thing you need to do if you are contemplating transferring rights in software is to establish what rights subsist in the software, who owns them, and the extent to which they should be covered by the transfer.
Frequently, different people own different copyrights in a computer program. For example, many software applications incorporate third party libraries, whether commercial or open source, and a software developer will not be in a position to transfer ownership of the copyright in those third party elements to a customer.
The water is further muddied by the fact that a number of different types of legal right may subsist in a single software program.
From a legal perspective, the key intellectual property right will usually be copyright. Literary copyright protects software code as well as normal literary works, while artistic copyright may protect the graphical elements of a computer program (subject in each case to the usual limitations). Legal assignments of copyright must not only be in writing, but must also be signed by or on behalf of the transferor.
Other relevant IP rights may include patents, rights in designs and database rights. Applications for registered rights such as patents are also assignable.
In some cases confidential information may form part of a transfer. This is not an intellectual property rights as such – it's what lawyer's call a "chose in action" – and particular care needs to be taken with this kind of right.
Once you have identified the subject matter of the rights and the rights themselves, you need to decide on what basis the transfer will be made. Will the transferor simply transfer those rights that it actually owns? Will the transferor transfer all rights subsisting in the identified subject matter? Will the transferor guarantee that it actually owns all such rights?
It is possible to assign future rights, including rights in software that does not exist at the date the assignment instrument is entered into.
Most copyright assignments will include a waiver (or assertion) of moral rights, but this is often not necessary where software is concerned, because moral rights do not protect software itself.
Assignments often take the form of a deed rather than a contract. This may be because the parties wish to avail themselves of the extended limitation periods that apply to actions based on deeds, or it may because there is no consideration for the transfer. An alternative to a deed in the latter case is to include nominal consideration under the contract.
In the case of an assignment of registered rights (e.g. a patent), the assignment should be recorded with the relevant authorities.