A work for hire is a legal term from United States Copyright Law, and is the one case where an author can create a copyrightable work and not own the copyright.
According to the Copyright Act of 1976, a work for hire is:
- A work done by an employee as part of the scope of his or her employment, or
- A work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution in a collective work:
In the case that the recipient of the work for hire does not employ the author, there must also be an agreement in writing between the parties involved that this is how the arrangement will be. The author has no rights whatsoever over the copyrighted work, except as expressly granted by the work for hire contract. Copyright goes to the other party, and the author is treated under law as though he or she did not exist, and had no participation in creation of the work at all. This is much more severe than if the copyright for the work had simply been transferred, in which case the author could still serve notice to the party he or she sold the rights to after 35 to 40 years that they want the copyright back.
An example might be what happens when a computer programmer writes software for a software company as part of his or her employment. This definitely falls under the first part of the work for hire provisions, and the computer program thus written is copyrighted by the software company, not by the programmer. In a newspaper, magazine, or other publication, articles written by a staff reporter for the publication would also have copyright belonging to the corporation in the same way. John Williams or James Horner probably do not own copyright to the famous soundtracks they have composed for many famous movies because most of them were produced under work for hire as well.
A disturbing change in these provisions came with the passage of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999, which contained the clause mentioned above that sound recordings could fall under work for hire provisions. Sound recordings were a gray area until this language was added to the law. These four words were pushed into the Act by RIAA lobbyists, much to the ire of NARAS and many other artists' groups. That would mean that any artist after the passage of the law (all such artists period if a court upholds the retroactive clause in the legislation) that signs an RIAA contract winds up signing over all their music as work for hire to the record label and consequently do not hold any copyright at all over any of their work, and no chance at all of ever getting the copyrights back.