A work is “made for hire" when it is prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment. Work prepared “within the scope of employment” can include commissioned work, supplementary work, or compilations. Because this list is not all encompassing, you can find more information in a circular published by the Copyright Office or in our Copyright Law Explained section on Works Made for Hire.
Why does it matter if a work is “Made for Hire”?
The “work made for hire” doctrine addresses the question: Who owns copyright when a person is hired to create certain types of works? The doctrine deems certain entities or individuals the owners of works prepared by their employees. The owner of the copyright is vested with automatic rights – such as the right to copy the work, make derivative works or adaptions of the work, to distribute the work and/or make money from the work. Thus, if you as an individual creator create a work “made for hire,” you are not the copyright owner; the entity commissioning the work is.
As an individual creator, you may enter into a work “made for hire” arrangement because your daily work duties at a place of employment require it, because you seek stable compensation, and/or because you wish to focus on creating, not exploiting your work. There are also instances when you may wish to commission a work made for hire. For example, as an independent filmmaker, you may wish to commission a composer to create a theme song for your film as a work made for hire. You may wish a title company to create artwork for the opening of your film as a work made for hire. There are many instances as an individual creator or small business that you may want work created for you in a manner that ensures you will be able to use the work and license it as you see fit.
Significantly, it is worth noting that there is a difference between assigning all rights to a work and entering into a for hire relationship. In the former, there is an opportunity to terminate that rights grant between the 35th and 40th year after it is made. But if the creation is a work made for hire, since the entity or person commissioning the work is actually deemed the owner of the work, such termination rights would not exist for you or your heirs. For more information, see Works Made for Hire.