Copyrights can be extremely valuable — the recent number of famous musicians who’ve sold the copyrights to their work for huge sums makes that pretty clear.
Perhaps most notable among these is Bob Dylan. He sold the rights to some of his very earliest songs for $100 in 1962, but he didn’t sell anything else for decades. And then in December 2020, Universal Music Publishing Group announced that it had purchased Dylan’s entire catalog of more than 600 songs — including his iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind.” They didn’t say how much they paid for this treasure trove, but the estimate is over $300 million.
Many other long-established musical stars, including Neil Young and Stevie Nicks, have agreed to multimillion-dollar deals for the copyrights to their songs. A British investment fund (called the Hipgnosis Songs Fund) has reportedly invested approximately $670 million for the copyrights to more than 40,000 songs. The sellers include Barry Manilow and Rick James’s estate.
What makes a copyright valuable?
A copyright is basically a kind of patent for intellectual property. Copyrights protect things like songs, novels, plays, and nonfiction books, but creators of webinars, software programs, website content, photos and videos, dance productions, and pretty much anything else can protect their work with a copyright.
If people manage their copyrights carefully, they can generate income through licensing deals. There are some famous cases where a copyright has been incredibly lucrative. Mariah Carey’s catchy “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has earned the singer an estimated $60 million since 1994.
In order to generate income from copyrighted material, the creator has to prove that the material is legally copyrighted and that they’re willing to defend the copyright against infringement. The essential first step is to register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.
This is necessary in order to have legal standing to file a lawsuit against anyone infringing on the copyright. A federal lawsuit to enforce a copyright is an expensive action, and its success isn’t guaranteed.
The “fair use” doctrine protects a wide range of uses of copyrighted material without compensation — and in many cases, the courts rule that the person being sued for unauthorized use is an “innocent infringer” and merely has to stop using the copyrighted work or acknowledge the copyright.
How do you manage a copyright portfolio?
To deter copyright infringement, you have to be on the lookout for unauthorized use, but that’s just one half of what managing a portfolio of copyrights involves. The other half is managing requests to use your copyrighted material. That $60 million Mariah Carey has earned on “All I Want for Christmas Is You” accumulated from a large number of relatively small payments for authorized use.
Owners of copyrights — whether they’re the original creators of the intellectual property or the publishers, music and film producers, or investors (such as the Hipgnosis Songs Fund) — have a clear motive for outlining a straightforward process to obtain permission for legal use of their copyrighted material.
Many publishers have online pages for requesting copyright permission that simplify the process. JotForm has numerous templates and tools — like widgets to collect legally binding online signatures — that can help you move the process entirely online.
While facing financial problems, many creatives have sold the copyright to their work only to watch its value increase exponentially over the years. Others (like Bob Dylan) retained ownership of their work and later chose to cash out rather than continue managing the portfolio themselves.
Experience has shown that creatives are generally better off when they retain the rights to their work — at least until it has matured in value — and online tools have made the chore of managing those copyrights much easier.