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The Government Can’t Take Your Copyright

A little known and infrequently invoked feature of the U.S. Copyright Law is its prohibition against government-mandated copyright transfer from an individual author. 17 U.S.C. § 201(e) reads:

When an individual author’s ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, has not previously been transferred voluntarily by that individual author, no action by any governmental body or other official or organization purporting to seize, expropriate, transfer, or exercise rights of ownership with respect to the copyright, or any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, shall be given effect under this title, except as provided under title 11 [the bankruptcy code].

Even a court cannot order a transfer. In a recent case in the District of Massachusetts, the court held that the effect of § 201(e) was to void a court ordered transfer from the defendant to the plaintiff.

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