If you are an artist, writer, photographer or other creative professional, it pays to know your rights as they pertain to copyright law. Too many creative professionals have surrendered their greatest assets without just compensation, just because they didn't know or understand the law. Your specific rights vary depending upon your relationship to the person or organization that is paying you, but both employees and freelance professionals should be diligent to safeguard their work. Here are some considerations for both employees and freelance creative professionals:
Know your rights as an employee
Under United States copyright law, you have very limited rights to your creative output if you are in an employee role. In general, employers own the full and exclusive rights to a creative work produced by an employee in the course of their duties. For example, if you are a staff photographer whose job is to take pictures of society events for a local newspaper, then the captured images belong to the employer. However, take note that only work done in the course of your duties is applicable in his instance. To continue the example from above, if you take photos at a big sporting event while you are off work, then the rights to those images belong to you.
As an employee, be sure to differentiate between "on duty" and "off duty" work so that no confusion arises when it comes to your creative work. If you are working on a personal project, it is best not to do any work at your place of employment, even if it is after hours or on a lunch break. An employer may decide to claim ownership of your work in situations such as this. Don't use company computers, paper or other equipment and supplies for your own projects; those actions could convince a court that you don't deserve to own the rights to your work.
Understand work-for-hire agreements
In situations where a creative work is purchased by a company from a non-employee, the rights continue to belong to the producer by default. However, in certain circumstances, a work-for-hire agreement can be signed by both the purchaser and creative professional; this legal document grants the rights to the purchaser of the work. Work-for-hire agreements are only legally valid when these conditions are met:
- The creative professional is commissioned to produce a specific creative work.
- A written agreement exists between the creative professional and the purchaser.
- The nature of the work falls into one of several specific categories, including collections, audiovisual works, translations, and instructional texts.
Work-for-hire agreements are commonly used to protect the interests of the purchaser, so be sure to watch out for your interests if you are asked to sign such an agreement. Insist that a work-for-hire agreement be signed before commissioning, and be wary of anyone who asks you to sign an agreement at a later stage in the process. In situations where you are unsure what to do, consult with a business or corporate lawyer to get accurate legal advice; the fee you pay upfront to a lawyer will be well-worth it in order to prevent greater financial loss down the line.
Define the relationship with the purchaser of your work
In addition to work-for-hire agreements, be sure that you understand your legal relationship with a purchaser of your work. Define the scope of your relationship explicitly with the purchaser, and never allow yourself to be inadvertently made an employee from a legal standpoint. Generally-speaking, an employer-employee relationship exists when the following apply:
- An employer has control over the creative work
- An employer provides equipment and facilities for the creative professional
- An employer has direction over the creative professional's schedule and conduct
- An employer pays payroll taxes or otherwise acts as if there is an employment relationship in-place
All of these conditions can be easily met if you are not deliberate in your actions, so challenge any steps taken by the purchaser should you believe they are leading toward an employer-employee relationship. Otherwise, you may find that once your work is finished, it belongs to the purchaser due to your carelessness.