Work For Hire Clauses: Assignment of Copyright

This week, we’re focusing on ‘works for hire’ and the contracts that control them.

As I mentioned yesterday, since the Copyright Act limits works for hire to specific types of commissioned works, clients may rely on a complete assignment of copyright to make sure that they wind up with control of the work in question. Many work for hire contracts include an assignment of copyright clause even for covered commissioned works, as a sort of belts and suspenders type of protection.

A typical assignment clause might look something like the following:

Ownership or Work. Works shall be considered made-for-hire under the United States Copyright Act and, at all stages of development, shall be and remain the sole and exclusive property of CLIENT. WRITER further agrees to take all actions and execute and deliver all documents requested by CLIENT in order to evidence the assignment of CLIENT’s rights in and to the Work. WRITER further agrees to irrevocably assign the entire copyright in and to the works to the CLIENT.

The bad deal about this sort of clause is that you will not be able to sell reprint writes to this work get royalties, republish the material yourself, or even post parts of it on your website or blog. Well, you can, but you’ll have to license it from the new copyright holder, and the law says they can charge you for such a license.

There is a good side to this sort of thing. You have grounds to ask for much higher pay than your normal rates, because you’ll be losing out on later revenue opportunities. You’ll also be asked for work for hire contracts, typically, on material that you won’t be able to resell very easily. Business owners will often ask for this sort of clause on brochures, employee handbooks, etc. You can also reuse material by rewriting it with a new slant — sure, you’ll still have to sink some more time into it, but it’s a way to continue making money from your knowledge.

I’m not a lawyer, but my litmus test on acceptability for signing away my copyright is based on two questions: Is it creative writing of any sort? I won’t sign away my rights to any fiction, poetry or creative non-fiction projects (i.e. essays). And, is the pay going to make up for the fact that I can’t reprint the material? I don’t have a set rate that makes it worth my while, but after a few contracts and getting burned once or twice, you learn how you value your own time.

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