Understanding the Work Made for Hire Doctrine in Copyright Law

The creative process that is so closely tied to the success of the entertainment industry often raises questions regarding ownership of creative works. While copyrights usually rest with the creator of a work, certain agreements can be made that transfer these rights to another party.

Generally, copyrights rest with the author or authors who originally create a work. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 contains a major exception, the “Work Made for Hire” Doctrine, which challenges the fundamental principle that copyright ownership lies with the individual who creates the work. In the case of a “Work Made for Hire,” the party for whom the work was completed is considered the author and thus holds the copyrights to the work created rather than the party who actually authored the work.

A Work Made for Hire is not, however, any work that you pay someone to create for you. In addition, it is not any work that you and a developer simply agree is a Work Made for Hire. Rather, “Work Made for Hire” is a specifically defined term in Copyright Law and applies only when certain conditions are met.

Disputes over what constitutes a “Work Made for Hire” often arise over two main issues: the distinction between an employee and a non-employee or independent contractor and whether or not the work in question qualifies as one or more of the nine categories outlined in the Copyright Act.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a “work made for hire” as either:

1.  a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or

2.  a work by a freelancer (independent contractor) which is specially ordered or commissioned for use as a translation, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a contribution to a collective work, as an atlas, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as a supplementary work such as a preface to a book, a forward or a musical arrangement, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

If the condition of category one is met, copyright ownership belongs to the employer unless an employment contract specifies that the creation of copyrightable material is not within the scope of employment. If the creation of the work falls outside the scope of employment then the employee, and not the employer, would have copyright ownership of the work.

If the conditions in category two are met, then the party hiring the freelancer would own the copyrights. If, however, these requirements are not strictly followed and the work falls outside the nine categories enumerated by the Copyright Act or a written agreement does not exist, then the freelancer would retain copyright ownership in the work.

Los Angeles intellectual property attorney, Anthony Spotora, commented, “It is the lack of a written instrument specifying the intended “Work-Made-for-Hire” relationship with independent contractors that commonly creates “Work-Made-for-Hire” copyright ownership issues. All too often, the intended owner seeks to argue that a “Work-Made-for-Hire” relationship was agreed upon, although it was stated only verbally. Subsequently, authorship of the work at issue ultimately winds up with its creator, rather that the intended owner. The second biggest misperception in freelance arrangements is that a written agreement specifying that a work is intended to be created on a “Work-Made-for-Hire” basis makes it so when, in fact, that is only the case if the work falls into one of the nine exceptions listed in Section 101 of the U.S. Copyright Act.”

Anthony Spotora is a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and Los Angeles business attorney. To learn more, visit Spotoralaw.com.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 12th, 2010 at 9:22 am and is filed under Business & Corporate Law, Contract Law, Employment Law, Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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