Work for hire is a legal term for a type of freelance work. In general, work for hire is done when a person does not actually work full-time for the company and only has a contract for a specific project, that is normally accomplished within a set timeframe. Work for hire is quite common in the publishing industry, most notably in the magazine, newspaper, and comic book fields, and also in the broader writing industries of TV, songwriting, and movies.
The main issue of work for hire is that it comes in direct contention with American copyright law and often causes lawsuits and disagreements between creators. In copyright law, the creator of something owns that creative property and any money created from it, unless bound by other contracts. In work for hire, the company that pays for the work owns the creative property.
Here's a few examples of why it can be a problem from the comic book industry:
- Marvel Comics' character Ghost Rider (pictured) was created by Gary Friedrich (with another writer and artist). He sued Marvel for money from the films. Marvel, now a division of Disney, countersued, and won, and the court ruled he had to pay back the money he was making from doing sketches as "the creator of Ghost Rider" - about $17,000. The main problem? Ghost Rider is a re-working of an older character, now called the Phantom Rider, created by other people, and Friedrich was hired as work for hire - meaning he has no legal right to Ghost Rider at all.
- Comic book founding father Jack Kirby, alongside Stan Lee and others, created some of the most iconic of the Marvel superheroes. His heirs want a piece of the pie, since, under standard copyright law, Kirby's copyrights on the characters would have lasted for seventy years after his death. But Kirby never owned those characters in the first place, since they were created work for hire.
- Ditto the heirs of Superman's creators in a fight with DC Comics.
- And finally, just this week, The Walking Dead (now a popular TV show)'s original artist, Tony Moore, has sued The Walking Dead's creator and writer Robert Kirkman, his childhood friend, for more money.
It may seem like I'm coming down on the side of the companies here. Which is strange for those of who you read my blog regularly, since I'm very much a pro-creator person. But the reality of each of these is this is what the is.
I don't really like it. Work for hire, overall, is kind of evil. When I write a book review for a magazine, as opposed to the ones I write on the PFS Book Club, I am not allowed to reuse without express permission, and that permission is rarely granted. I can use them for my portfolio, but that's it. The company owns the whole thing.
But there are times you sign away your rights because you need to make money or you want something from whoever you're working for. A character can't appear in DC Comics without them owning them - so if you want to write Batman, you pay that price. Likewise, you want to write for a TV show, any jokes you write aren't yours - they belong to the show. There are several new publishing ventures which do a work for hire basis, where you create a novel from an editor's idea. Hopefully, you get paid accordingly for these things. If not, walk away.
The main lesson to take from these, especially from the heirs of the Superman creators and Jack Kirby, is that you must know what your legal rights are and what they are not. I feel bad for Kirby's heirs, but in the end, just because it sucks, doesn't mean it's unlawful. Kirby and the other original comic book creators didn't know better - most of them were quite young in fact and copyright law was just as hard to understand then as it is now - but that's the law and it's on the side of the companies.
Ignorance of the law isn't an excuse and doesn't stand up in court. Know who you're dealing with, what they want, and what the price you'll pay is. This will save you much heartache later on.