Canadian copyright law is primarily governed by the federal
Copyright Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-42 (the "Act").
The Act, among other things, sets-out the rights covered by
copyright, including the length of such rights and how such rights
may be licensed, transferred or waived. Indeed, the Act provides
that (emphasis added):
13. (4) The owner of the copyright in any work may assign
the right, either wholly
or partially, and either generally or subject to limitations
relating to territory, medium or sector of the market or other
limitations relating to the scope of the assignment, and either for
the whole term of the copyright or for any other part
thereof, and may grant any interest in the right by licence
On its face, the Act would seem to provide that a copyright
owner can 'slice and dice' the bundle of copyrights in a
work in any manner that she, he or it deem fit. Indeed, as
assignments and licenses are typically commercial transactions and
copyright is a valuable (intangible) asset, this would appear to be
self-evident and, for the most part, the copyright owner does have
unfettered freedom to deal with copyright.
Assignees and licensees of
copyright in Canada, however, need to keep in mind an oft forgotten
aspect of the Act: the author's reversionary interest in
14. (1) Where the author of a work is the first owner of
the copyright therein, no assignment of the copyright and no grant
of any interest therein, made by him, otherwise than by will, after
June 4, 1921, is operative to vest in the assignee or grantee any
rights with respect to the copyright in the work beyond the
expiration of twenty-five years from the death of the author, and
the reversionary interest in the copyright expectant on the
termination of that period shall, on the death of the author,
notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, devolve on his legal
representatives as part of the estate of the author, and any
agreement entered into by the author as to the disposition of such
reversionary interest is void.
(2) Nothing in subsection (1) shall be construed as
applying to the assignment of the copyright in a collective work or
a licence to publish a work or part of a work as part of a
The reversionary interest does not apply in all cases and only
where an author is also the 'first owner' of copyright. For
example, if an author was self-employed, or did not create the work
in the course of employment, the author would typically be the
first owner of copyright in that work; in contrast, when an author
creates a work as part of his or her course of employment, the
employer is generally the first owner of copyright and so the
reversionary interest does not operate. The reversionary interest
also does not operate where the author is the first owner, but the
grant of interest (i.e. assignment or license) was by means of the
author's will or was in respect of a collective work.
Copyright in a work (generally) lasts for the life of the
author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies
and for an additional period of fifty years in
Canada2. Where the reversion provisions of
the Act apply, any (Canadian) rights granted (including rights
purporting to cover the full term of copyright) by the author
during his or her lifetime are only valid until twenty-five years
after the death of the author; they then revert to the author's
estate. As copyright generally lasts for some twenty-five more
years after this, there is a significant period of copyright that
reverts back to the author's estate. It is also important to
note that this reversion occurs automatically.
In practice, for the majority of original works, this is not a
significant issue: many works do not have practical commercial
value twenty-five years after the author has died and others may
not have the author being a first owner. Certainly, however, there
are cases where a work has considerable value years after an
author's death and indeed some works have become much more
valuable in the years after the author died.
Where Canadian copyright is involved, it is therefore important
for assignees and (long-term) licensees to at least consider the
issue of the author's reversionary interest and whether (and
how) it may impact them, lest this forgotten area of the law come
back to haunt from beyond the grave...
1 The special case of reversionary rights for pre-1924
works as provided under s. 60(2) of the Act is not considered in
this article, as that applies to a smaller and smaller sub-set of
2 See s. 6 of the Act.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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A recent Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench decision allowed a court-appointed receiver to sell and transfer intellectual property rights free and clear of encumbrances, finding that a license to use improvements of an invention was a contractual interest and not a property interest.
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