AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

Work for hire refers to any work created by independent contractors or an employee within their scope of employment — work of which the employee gives up their ownership rights. 

If the work is created by an independent contractor, that work must also fall under one of the nine statutory categories of commissioned works delineated under the Copyright Act.

Let's take a deeper dive into what work for hire really means, what a work for hire agreement includes, who owns works made for hire and how long a work for hire copyright works.

What is considered work for hire?

Work for hire, again, is simply defined as any work that you, as an independent contractor or as an employee, do for a company or commissioner and hand over your ownership of that work. 

This might be song lyrics that a contracted songwriter writes for a musician or agency that hires them independently, or it might be a software program that a staff programmer creates for their company.

Hiring managers who are looking to bring independent contractors onboard usually hire them with work for hire agreements to help both parties understand what the project will entail and what will be expected of the contractor. Because a work for hire agreement can protect both the interest of the hiring party and the independent contractor, contractors will often use work for hire agreements with clients, as well.

What does a work for hire agreement include?

Before getting started working on a project for a client, you should sign a work for hire agreement. If the hiring party does not already create one for you to sign, you can create one for them to sign.

A work for hire agreement should include the following elements:

  • A comprehensive description of the project
  • Expectations of both the hiring party and the contractor
  • A timeline for the project's completion
  • Any project milestones
  • Payment terms
  • Confirmation of who will have rights to the work created

3 rights to know before agreeing to work for hire

1. Who owns works made for hire?

Who owns works depends on whether or not that work was done under a made for hire agreement. Either the creator or the company/commissioner will own the work depending on the contract signed (or lack thereof) prior to getting started on the work.

The purchasing party owns works made for hire so long as there is a signed work for hire agreement. Without a formal, signed work for hire agreement that confirms that the company or commissioner of the work has rights to the work created, rights may not be transferred from the creator of the work to the hiring party who purchased the work.

"If a work is made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is the initial owner of the copyright unless both parties involved have signed a written agreement to the contrary," according to The United States Copyright Office.

For example, a journalist may write an article for a magazine as work made for hire. Once the journalist submits their story to the magazine, the magazine then assumes rights over and ownership of that article if there is a work for hire agreement signed. The journalist would no longer have rights to the article, which usually means that they cannot sell it to other magazines, for example. That said, without a work for hire agreement, under copyright law, writers (and other creators) presumably own the copyright to any work that they create — so a journalist could, in theory, resell the same article to another outlet without permission if there's no work for hire agreement.

So if a journalist writes an article for a magazine as work made for hire, the magazine will own the rights to that article. Likewise, if a graphic designer creates a logo for a company as work made for hire, the company will own rights to that logo.

Specifics of rights and ownership terms should be outlined in the work for hire agreement before the work is started.

2. How long does a work for hire copyright last?

"The term of copyright protection of a work made for hire is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation — whichever expires first," according to the United States Copyright Office.

3. What is work for hire in music?

There is tons of work made for hire in the music industry — as well as in all different types of creative industries like writing, design, architecture, engineering and more.

If a company or commissioner hires you to create music for them, you are the copyright owner of that music and retain all of the rights that come with owning it — not the company or commissioner unless, as outlined above, they ask you to sign a work for hire agreement that would transfer the copyright.

If you hire a photographer to shoot your gigs, a graphic designer to create a logo for your band, a designer to create t-shirts and other merch for your concerts or another independent contractor to create work for your music business, they, too, will own rights to the work that they create unless you ask them to sign a work for hire agreement that would transfer the copyright to you.

Without a work for hire agreement, your photographer can sell the same photos of your gig to others wanting to use them (and you won't be able to sell them without their permission). The graphic designer can resell the same logo to other musicians. And the designer can resell the same merch design to other bands who'll sell them to their listeners, too.

Copyright ownership is important! And it's especially important in the music industry, where music, lyrics, logos, merch designs and more are copied all the time. So make sure that before you do work for anyone in the music industry or before you hire anyone to do work for you in the music industry, you have both signed a work for hire agreement.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.