Contractor Copyrights

Contractor
Contractor

Want to pay a contractor to produce creative material for you, and then actually own the copyrights? Getting ownership of contractor copyrights is tricky.

Copyrighted material – be it text, images, music, or code, is important for many creative and commercial efforts. None of us have the time or talent to do all of this ourselves, and so it is natural to turn to experts to help provide this material.

We could hire employees for this purpose.  However, many projects are of limited duration, and alas, unlike “the good old days” where employees had no rights and could be hired and fired at whim, these days employees actually have rights and benefits. These include unemployment insurance, social security, tax withholding, and the like. No one wants to go back to the Victorian era, but at the same time, it can be a hassle to employ someone.

Contractors are often used to avoid this hassle.  Contractors are expected to deliver results, but to do so in their own way. We pay money, expect to obtain the benefit of the deal, and then no more hassles or obligations. This simple expectation breaks down when it comes to IP, however, and contractor copyrights are particularly tricky.

To somewhat oversimplify, if you want to pay someone and obtain ownership of copyrighted material in return, the following legal considerations can apply:

  • Under Federal law, full copyright ownership requires a “work for hire” agreement
  • “Work for hire” agreements may imply (and in California, can define) that the worker is an employee
  • Employees are legally entitled to various employee benefits
  • Contractors are not legally entitled to employee benefits
  • Absent an assignment, copyright ownership remains with the contractor
  • Copyright ownership assignments must be in writing
  • Copyright assignments that are not “work for hire” can be terminated by the author or heirs after 35 years

This creates interesting legal problems.  It is common to put “work for hire” terms in contract agreements. The idea is to automatically acquire full copyright ownership this way.  However, such “work for hire” terms can be inconsistent or even incompatible with the definition of “contractor”.  This can open the door to potential legal headaches.

In an alternative approach, there is no “work for hire” clause, but as part of the deal, the author-contractor agrees to assign all contractor copyrights to the work that you have paid for. This is not perfect either. Additional assignment paperwork is often needed, and Federal copyright law allows an author-contractor to petition to terminate this assignment 35 years later.

35 years is fine for most purposes, but what if you are thinking on longer terms? Here, efforts to work around the 35-year copyright assignment termination issue should be considered. One option is to contract with a corporation that in turn “work for hire” employs the author.

Terminating copyright transfers

return
“Return”, by Ldavis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Someone in your family write something years ago that was a hit? Copyright transfer termination laws might let you get this old copyright back.  

US copyright laws contain certain author-friendly provisions that allow independent (not working for hire) authors to eventually get their copyrights back.  The underlying idea is to give a second chance to young authors who may have entered into unfavorable copyright assignment (transfer) deals with various publishers.

For example, the 1976 copyright act (17 U.S. Code § 203, effective 1978) states that under certain situations (such as if written notice is given 2-10 years in advance), the rights to previously assigned copyrights can be retrieved by the author (or heirs) during a limited 5 year time window that starts 35 years after the initial assignment or publication.

Although since 1978, there have been other substantial changes to US copyright law (e.g. the “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension act of 1998), this 1976/1978 era termination right still exists.

Indeed the concept of author termination rights predates the 1976/1978 copyright act.  Previous copyright acts, such as the 1909 US copyright act, had independent author termination rights as well.  For example, under the 1909 act (in effect until 1977), copyright terms were 28 years, and the author had the option to renew the copyright one time, for a total of 56 years.  During this first renewal period, under certain situations, the author could also terminate his original copyright assignments at 28 years. But no more.

The 1976/78 copyright act changed the copyright term (for works not made for hire) from 56 years to the author’s lifetime plus 50 years, and later the renewal requirement was also dropped. The 1976/78 copyright act changed the author termination rules for pre-1978 works. These days, for pre-1978 works, under 17 U.S. Code § 304, independent authors (or heirs of independent authors) are now given a five-year window, starting at 56 years, to get their copyrights back.

Sound complicated?  This is the simplified version; the reality is even more complex!  For example, what is a “work for hire?” For non-employees, it is a work that someone has commissioned you to do, and these days this commission agreement must be in writing.  However, in the pre-1978 era, companies would try to incorporate “work for hire” clauses into assignments from even non-commissioned authors. The courts did not always buy this, as per a famous Marvel comics case involving Captain America.  Like to get the rights to this?

These rules are so complex that you almost need a computer program to sort through the various options.  Fortunately, this has been done.  The Authors Alliance, in conjunction with Creative Commons, now offers online software designed to give authors at least a rough idea of the feasibility of terminating their earlier copyright assignments.  This software is available at rightsback.org.