Who Owns the Work in a Work For Hire?

Updated: Feb 4

If you’re a freelancer, you’ve probably received a work for hire contract from your client. It is a contract that determines ownership of rights in the work created by the person commissioned to do the work.

The person who creates a creative work, photograph, painting, sculpture, website, blog article, owns copyright in that work. No big surprise there, that is the general rule. There are exceptions to this rule. In some cases, the creator of the work does not own the copyright. A classic example of that is in an employer-employee relationship. Employees work under the control, supervision and direction of their employers and they typically surrender any rights they have in their work to their employers. In other words, software, images, and videos that you develop as an employee are not yours. They’re owned by the company and no assignment is necessary. Such work is considered a work made for hire.

Another example of a work made for hire is commissioned works or work that is specifically ordered by someone, like a business owner hiring the services of a freelancer to create a website or a graphic design for the business. But ordered work is considered a work for hire only if it says so in writing, such as a work for hire agreement or an independent contractor agreement which has a work for hire clause. And this work for hire or independent contractor agreement must be signed before the freelancer begins his/her work.

For freelancers, this means that they give up their right in the work and the client is free to use the work any way he/she wants. Freelancers cannot then do anything with the work, even including the work in their portfolio, unless they get permission from their client.

To put this in context, here’s a client story for you. Lisa is a graphic designer who was given a work for hire agreement from a corporate client. Lisa signed the contract after briefly reviewing it. She created a logo for her client who was happy with the work and paid her for her services.

A few months later, Lisa received a cease and desist letter from her corporate client objecting to the use of their logo on Lisa’s website showcasing the work she had done so far. Lisa was very scared when she got the letter and started freaking out. But she also didn’t understand why she couldn’t display her own work on her website. Because she had signed a work for hire agreement, making her client the sole owner of all the work that she created, she didn’t have any right to use the work for marketing or promotional purposes. When I explained this to her, she immediately took it down.

To avoid such situations, it’s best to negotiate a provision which will preserve the creator’s right to display and showcase the work for self-promotional purposes.

Copyright is a complex area of law with many nuances. It’s best to consult with an attorney specialized in the field to help you understand the legal implications in a contract.

At Nupur Shah Law, we help with contract review and creation and setup new businesses. We help with reviewing your work and determining the best possible protection available to you. Call us at 646-820- 1366 or email us at I am happy to have a complimentary conversation with you on how to secure your rights.

Working with an attorney to secure your business can help avoid trouble later on. Nupur Shah Law can help you if you have questions about your business.

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