What does Work for Hire mean?

Work for hire is a special term used in the United States Copyright Act. Normally when a person or group creates a copyrightable piece such as a song or score, the person or persons creating the work will have the copyright to that piece of music. Thus the owners of the copyright can exploit that piece of work to generate income for themselves.  However there are certain times when the creator of a piece of work does not own the copyright to the work they create.
These situations are considered ‘Work for Hire’. This is when a person or company seeks to contract or hire a writer/composer to create a piece of work for the company or person.  When this happens, the creator of the material composes or writes the piece contracted and when completed the creator of the song or work then relinquishes all rights and ownership to that piece and turns it over to the person who contracted or hired them.   The Copyright Act allows for the copyright to go not to the creator but to the person who hired the creator to make the work. The law treats the creator as if he did not even participate. The employer owns the copyright and it is as if they created the work themselves without any help from the actual creator.  Under a ‘work for hire’ contract, you will have absolutely no right to the music you create.
Many musicians may believe that any work they create is theirs but not in all cases. There are legitimate times when ‘work for hire’ contracts are acceptable. If you write music for commercials, you will undoubtedly have to sign a work for hire contract. The company who makes the product will want the rights to the jingle you created. Another time you may encounter a work for hire contract is in session work.  If someone asks you to help them record or tour with them nationally, you will not be considered a member of the band but hired as an employee you may be asked to sign a work for hire contract. If you sign a work for hire contract to play with a band and are hired on as an employee, you will not be entitled to any royalties or even credit for your work other than what the band agrees to pay you. So if you create music for the band during the contracted time period, everything you create belongs exclusively to the band that hired you.
A work for hire is not the same thing as transferring ownership of a copyright. You may create a song and then sell it to another company. The Copyright Act allows an author of a song to get it back even after transferring ownership. If you transfer a song to someone, you may then serve written notice on the person who holds the copyright between the thirty-fifth and fortieth years after transferring the copyright and get the rights to your song back. . Transferring ownership is not the same thing as a work for hire. You have more rights if you create a song yourself then transfer it than you do with a work for hire contract.   Under a work for hire contract, you will never get the rights to your song back because you never owned it in the first place.
Many musicians worry about the ownership of their works. Fortunately, there are specific criteria’s needed to be met for your work to be considered a work for hire. A copyrightable work will be considered a work for hire if you are an employee of the employer and create the work in the course of your employment. For example, people who create computer programs for Microsoft are works for hire. Microsoft will own the copyright to the final program, not the programmer. If you are not a regular employee but an independent contractor, there must be a written contract that specifically states it is a work for hire. By understanding what a work for hire is, when you encounter them during your career you have a choice of doing the project or not.  But also will understand that by agreeing to a work for hire contract, you are agreeing to relinquish all ownership of any material that you will create for that contract.

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