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You are here: Home  Copyright Law Works for Hire

Works Made for Hire Under the Copyright Act


Under the 1976 Copyright Act, as amended, a work is protected by copyright from the time it is created in a fixed form.  When a work is first written down or otherwise set into tangible form, the copyright immediately becomes the property of the author who created it.  Only the author or persons deriving their rights from the author can rightfully claim copyright.

The general rule is that the person who creates a work is the author of that work.  However, there is an exception to that principle.  The copyright law defines a category of works called “works made for hire.”  If a work is “made for hire,” the employer, and not the employee, is considered the author.  The employer may be a firm, an organization, or an individual.

The concept of a work made for hire is derived from the Copyright Act and court decisions.

Definition of Work for Hire

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

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

(2)  a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work:

  • as a part of a motion picture

  • as a part of other audiovisual work, 

  • as a translation, 

  • as a supplementary work, 

  • as a compilation, 

  • as an instructional text, 

  • as a test, 

  • as answer material for a test, or 

  • as an atlas, 

if the parties expressly agree in a written document signed by them that the work will be considered a work made for hire.  For the purpose of the foregoing sentence, a “supplementary work” is a work prepared for a publication as a secondary adjunct to a work by another author for the purpose of introducing, concluding, illustrating, explaining, revising, commenting upon, or assisting in the use of the other work, such as forewords, afterwords, pictorial illustrations, maps, charts, tables, editorial notes, musical arrangements, answer material for tests, bibliographies, appendixes; and an “instructional text” is a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities.

How to Determine if A Work Is Made For Hire

Whether or not a particular work is made for hire is determined by the relationship between the parties.  This determination may be difficult, because the statutory definition of a work made for hire is complex and not always easily applied.  That definition was the focus of a 1989 Supreme Court decision (Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730,  1989).  The court held that to determine whether a work is made for hire, one must first ascertain whether the work was prepared by (1) an employee or (2) an independent contractor.

If a work is created by an employee, part 1 of the statutory definition applies, and generally the work would be considered a work made for hire.  IMPORTANT:  The term “employee” here is not really the same as the common understanding of the term; for copyright purposes, it means an employee under the general common law of agency.  

If a work is created by an independent contractor (that is, someone who is not an employee under the general common law of agency), then the work is a specially ordered or commissioned work, and part 2 of the statutory definition applies.  Such a work can be a work made for hire only if both of the following conditions are met: 

(1) it comes within one of the nine categories of works listed in part 2 of the definition and 

(2) there is a written agreement between the parties specifying that the work is a work made for hire.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  It is this last requirement that causes many web site developers and designers to own the copyrights to web sites they create as independent contractors for web site owners.  It is IMPERATIVE that when you hire an independent contractor to design or create all or portions of your web site, you must have written agreement that contains the "magic" language by which the creator of the work assigns all copyrights to the web site owner.

Employer-Employee Relationship Under Agency Law

If a work is created by an employee, part 1 of the copyright code’s definition of a work made for hire applies.  To help determine who is an employee, the Supreme Court in CCNV v. Reid identified certain factors that characterize an “employer-employee” relationship as defined by agency law:

1.  Control by the employer over the work (e.g., the employer may determine how the work is done, has the work done at the employer’s location, and provides equipment or other means to create work)

2.  Control by employer over the employee (e.g., the employer controls the employee’s schedule in creating work, has the right to have the employee perform other assignments, determines the method of payment, and/or has the right to hire the employee’s assistants)

3.  Status and conduct of employer (e.g., the employer is in business to produce such works, provides the employee with benefits, and/or withholds tax from the employee’s payment)

These factors are not exhaustive.  The court left unclear which of these factors must be present to establish the employment relationship under the work for hire definition, but held that supervision or control over creation of the work alone is not controlling.

All or most of these factors characterize a regular, salaried employment relationship, and it is clear that a work created within the scope of such employment is a work made for hire (unless the parties involved agree otherwise).

Examples of works for hire created in an employment relationship are:

·   A software program created within the scope of his or her duties by a staff programmer for Creative Computer Corporation.

·   A newspaper article written by a staff journalist for publication in the newspaper that employs him.

·   A musical arrangement written for XYZ Music Company by a salaried arranger on its staff.

·  A sound recording created by the salaried staff engineers of ABC Record Company.

The closer an employment relationship comes to regular, salaried employment, the more likely it is that a work created within the scope of that employment would be a work made for hire.  However, since there is no precise standard for determining whether or not a work is made for hire under the first part of the definition, you should consult an attorney for legal advice.

Who's the Author of a Work made for Hire?

If a work is a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is the author.

Who is the Owner of the Copyright in a Work made for Hire?

If a work is a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is the initial owner of the copyright unless there has been a written agreement to the contrary signed by both parties.

Effect On Term Of Copyright Protection

The term of copyright protection of a work made for hire is 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.  A work not made for hire is ordinarily protected by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.  For additional information concerning the terms of copyright protection, request Circular 15a, “Duration of Copyright.”

Effect On Termination Rights

The Copyright Act provides that certain grants of the rights in a work that were made by the author may be terminated 35 to 40 years after the grant was made or after publication, depending on the circumstances.  The termination provisions of the law do not apply to works made for hire.

For Further Information

Information via the Internet: Circulars, announcements, regulations, other related materials, and all copy-right application forms are available via the Internet at the Copyright Office homepage.

Information by fax:  Circulars and other information (but not application forms) are available from the Copyright Office Fax-on-Demand at (202) 707-2600.

Information by telephone:  For information about copyright, call the Copyright Office Public Information Office at (202) 707-3000.  The TTY number is (202) 707-6737.  Information specialists are on duty in the Public Information Office from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., eastern time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays.  Recorded information is available 24 hours a day.  Or, if you know which application forms and circulars you want, request them 24 hours a day from the Forms and Publications Hotline at (202) 707-9100. Leave a recorded message.

Information by regular mail:  Write to:

Library of Congress

Copyright Office

Public Information Office

101 Independence Avenue, S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20559-6000



This page was last modified on July 22, 2007.

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