When I first started working in the publishing industry I was young, fresh out of college, and a lot of the terms I heard being bandied about were as foreign to me as if my boss were speaking a different language. In reality he was speaking a different language, he was speaking publishing-ese. One of the terms he mentioned quite often was work for hire. At the time, I was working for a company that did production for college level English textbooks, so most of our writers were signed on as “work for hire.” I never asked what that meant, and I just assumed it meant their names weren’t on the final product. Because a lot of times that was the case, a person would work on pulling together an anthology, maybe of short stories by American women writers, or poems of 19th century Britain, but they wouldn’t be acknowledged on the cover, it was just an anthology. Not all were like that, we did work with one editor whose name had enough recognition that he was mentioned on the cover and the title page.
It turns out I’m not alone in having the wrong idea about what work for hire truly means. Some people might think it means doing a job where you get paid a flat rate. Others might think it means you’ve been hired for a specific job and that’s it.
It turns out work for hire is a clause that can be used to make an exemption to copyright laws. Under U.S. copyright laws, any time you write something, once your pen hits the paper or your fingers hit the keyboard, it is yours, forever and always. But sometimes a publisher might want to have control over that writing in perpetuity. Anthologies are a great example of this. Publishers might want to publish a second edition, or a revision, without having to go back to the original writer or editor for permission, or even to pay them a second time for work. If you sign a contract with a work for hire clause, that means your writing is owned by the publisher, not you.
If you are an employee doing writing, the work you do for that employer is considered “work for hire.” If you are an independent freelancer, your work only qualifies as work for hire if it falls into one of these categories:
- a contribution to a collective work (like a piece for a magazine, anthology, or encyclopedia)
- a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
- a translation
- a supplementary work (like a foreword, afterword, bibliography, appendix, index, or editorial notes)
- a compilation (like an anthology, database, or anything that qualifies as a “collective work” from category 1 above)
- an instructional text (generally, any text that could go in a textbook)
- a test
- answer material for a test
- an atlas
Of course, even if a publisher can’t qualify your work as work for hire, there are other ways for them to write into contracts ways to retain rights to your work. But that’s not always a bad thing. For example, if you’re writing copy for a PR firm to help sell dog food, you probably won’t use that writing anywhere else anyway.
Overall, it’s important to remember work for hire isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when you want to publish your poem, short story, essay or novel, make sure you read the contract carefully, all the way through.
For more information about contracts and what to look for, check out my video on All About Publishing.