Becoming a Freelance Photographer: Work Made For Hire
If you’ve never heard of this term before, I truly envy you. Work Made for Hire is one of the biggest issues for a freelance photographer, and has screwed over many freelancers, myself included. In this installment, I will try to explain what this term is, what it does, and why so many photographers hate it. Part of this will deal with the actual copyright law, but I will try to make it as easily understandable as possible.
Work Made for Hire is a subsection of United States Copyright Law, and is the only section of copyright law that awards copyright to someone else besides the original creator. Under this section of the copyright law, the copyright and ownership of a given work (since we are talking photography, this means a photograph or set of photos) is granted to the person who paid you for it. You retain ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHTS to your work, meaning that if you aren’t given permission by the person who hired you, you can’t even include the work in a portfolio, without creating the potential for a lawsuit.
Scary, right? Well Work Made For Hire has a few very specific points, only a few of which will affect you as a photographer. This type of copyright can only be claimed in two cases: 1) You are an employee (meaning, your on a payroll and the like) and it is part of the job you were hired for, or 2) You are an Independent Contractor (i.e. a freelancer) with a signed contract clearly stating that your work will be Work Made For Hire, and that the intended purpose of the work falls within one of the very narrow categories the law states. Again, since we are talking freelance photography, out of these categories there is only one that really applies to photographers, and that is the “part of a collective work”. A collective work is something like a magazine or newspaper. Pretty much anything you are not the sole photographer on.
Now that the law section is out of the way, we can get into what makes this a freelancers bane. Say you get hired on as a freelance photographer for a magazine, and they tell you that you are entitled to everything you shoot. You sign a one year contract with them, and things are good. Until about a year later, when they start reprinting your images without crediting you or even asking you as it states in your contract. Then when you go talk to them, they pull out the contract you signed and it states your work is “Work Made for Hire”. It now doesn’t matter what you do they own your work, and are free to do whatever they want with it.
Seems like a pretty impossible scenario, right? Wrong. This happens a lot, and is exactly what happened to me as well. Publishers constantly lie to freelancers, in an effort to steal their work with little or not compensation. It doesn’t matter what they say the deal is, if it’s work made for hire, to be blunt, your screwed.
The idea behind Work Made for Hire isn’t bad, but is constantly abused. The lesson to learn here is a little more than “read your contract”, however. The final lesson of becoming a freelancer is know your client. You need to develop a good sense for business, and that is not something that can be taught in a classroom, by a friend, or even by a professional, but only something that can be gained through experience (typically bad experience). And that is what being a freelance and even a professional photographer boils down to: Experience, in photography, business, and life.
If your interested in learning more about Work Made for Hire here is the link to the US Copyright law