Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013

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The default copyright scenario is that a creator owns his or her work. For another party to own the work, it must be set forth in writing. Under this default, therefore, contractors own their work. If a written agreement with a contractor sets forth that the work is a “work for hire,” then the person paying for the work in most cases will own the work. Under federal copyright law, a work for hire is specifically defined as “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment, or a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a:

  • Contribution to a collective work,
  • Part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • Translation
  • Supplementary work
  • Compilation
  • Instructional text
  • Test
  • Answer material for a test
  • Atlas 

If the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.” The definition means that anytime a writer or artist is hired by contract to create a work for someone else, it is work for hire. If you are employed to create a work for hire it means that you will not own the copyright to your work. Instead, the company that hired you is paying an agreed upon compensation for the work. The entire copyright privileges, including the right to reproduce and change as needed, belong exclusively to the company that hired you. 

If you are negotiating a work for hire with anther company, it is imperative that you make certain that the agreement clearly defines copyright ownership. Also, be sure and negotiate an agreeable price for your work, as you will most likely be disqualified from collecting any royalties or other profits from the sale and use of your work. Finally, clearly define in the contract whether the owner will be permitted to further sell, contract, license, or distribute your work to other organizations and people. This is especially important to consider if you are creating a product such as an interface program that could have multiple applications. 

There can be complex situations regarding contractors, employees and employers, joint contributions to works, and works for hire. You should consult an attorney to be sure that you have the right language in any contract to achieve your desired goal.