Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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Should a freelance writer sign a work-for-hire agreement?

April 3, 2009

Tags: rights, freelance, work for hire, indemnification, all rights, copyright

The terms “work for hire” or “work made for hire” (WFH) should give writers pause. Much corporate work is done as WFH — which means the organization that pays you to do a project owns the material, period, and you have no rights beyond those to which you have mutually agreed in your contract. But not all corporate work is work for hire. Take the time to understand what rights you are giving up when you sign such a contract, particularly if there is any chance the would could produce a revenue stream over time. Typically you are giving up all rights to future revenue and possibly even to credit for authorship or editing (though even WFH contracts may provide for additional revenues if the project is profitable) Educate yourself by reading ASJA's position paper, RIGHTS 101: What Writers Should Know About All-Rights and Work-Made-For-Hire Contracts.


While you’re there read How to Deal with Indemnification Clauses because those who offer work-for-hire contracts are equally likely to include an indemnification clause in the agreement.


Work qualifies as work for hire only if you are an employee doing work as an employee or, if you are working as a contractor, only under the specific circumstances outlined in the ASJA position paper (and originally by the Copyright Office). Most personal histories would not qualify. Some oral histories would (if they are part of a collective work). You may decide that you can live with an all-rights contract (meaning you give up all rights), but know what you are giving up. Many creators refuse to sign work-for-hire agreements, knowing that the money they get up front for a project may be only a fraction of the potential revenue stream.


Who owns the copyright to a work (a separate but related issue) depends on what both or all parties agree to. Those who hire a ghost or contractor to write a book will typically expect to own copyright, but even U.S. government agencies sometimes grant copyright to an outside (non-employee) writer, especially when that’s the only way to interest a commercial publisher in publishing the project (sparing the government the cost of doing so, and giving the writer and publisher a financial incentive to publish and promote the book). Having the copyright in the author’s name may make a project look less like a vanity publishing effort and may lend the story more credibility.