What Is a Work-for-Hire Contract?



If you want to write as a freelancer for a living, you’re a “writer for hire.” Many clients will want you to sign a work-for-hire agreement/contract. In the simplest sense, this means that you are working for the client as an independent contractor and the work you are providing is the client’s after you’ve received the payment. This means the client holds all the rights to the work you provide once they’ve paid for it. You will get work-for-hire agreements for things like writing content for a business website, blog posts, articles, reviews, you name it. The point is that once you’ve been paid the client can do whatever they want with it and distribute it however they like as much as they like. Duh, you wrote it for them specifically, not for yourself. Usually if you’re working for individuals, these distinctions of being an independent contractor and rights going to the client are self-explanatory, and the client won’t ask for a formal contract. You can write one up if you want, of course (see last week’s post to help figure out when you need a contract), but it’s usually companies that want to make the formal distinction. Why? Well,  you aren’t actually a full-time employee of the company, and they want to define you as an independent contractor so they don’t have to provide you benefits or help you out with taxes .

To be considered an independent contractor, you must be engaged in a specific occupation or be the proprietor of a specific business. This just means that freelancing is your job (even if it’s a side job). You can start an official business, like I did, but you don’t necessarily have to have a business license to be an independent contractor. If you have a business license or a Federal I.D. number (this is something you get if you incorporate your business and/or want to hire employees) you have to submit that information along with the contract, but if you don’t, you just have to provide your Social Security number for the company to put on record. The second requirement is that you work entirely unsupervised. Now of course you want to communicate with the client and cater to what they want from the project, but you aren’t in the company’s office being watched over by a manager. Ultimately, it just means you’re responsible for your own work. Lastly, to be an independent contractor you have to provide your own equipment for the job. The company isn’t going to pay for a new laptop. If you need a specific program to complete a job, like InDesign to convert a print manuscript into ebook format, the company isn’t going to pay that monthly fee to Adobe. If you’re an independent contractor you cannot present yourself as an employee of that company. For instance, you can’t update your job description on LinkedIn to include that company’s name, like “Ghostwriter at ABC Media.” You aren’t a ghostwriter at ABC media, you’re a freelance writer doing some ghostwriting for the company. Your work for that company should go in your portfolio, not your job title. Likewise, your clients can’t claim to be a partner in your business or your employer.

Just because they pay you money doesn’t mean you’re their employee. You’re the boss of your own company, which is under contract to do one specific job for the client’s company and nothing else. You can’t receive benefits like health care even if the work you are doing for that client requires full-time hours, but the client can’t make you do anything outside of that contracted job for them. If you’ve worked at a 9 to 5, you know that your job description usually includes a whole bunch of things that really have nothing to do with your title. You get a bunch of busy work on top of your regular work. Not with freelancing. Don’t ever let your client push you around and add on extra stuff that wasn’t in your contract. Your client is not your boss, just as you aren’t the client’s boss. You’re two equals swapping services (money for content). Understanding that dynamic and boosting your confidence in your work enough to actually stand by it can be the difference between a satisfying job and a nightmare scenario that buries you under piles of unexpected work that you aren’t actually getting paid for. 

Now let’s talk about the second main component, which distinguishes a work-for-hire contract from other forms of freelancing contracts. All rights for the written material belong to the company as soon as you are paid for creating it. You are paid a set rate for that work, and once it’s done, you don’t get any more money. Now, what will change from contract to contract is how much credit you are getting for that work. If you are working as a “ghostwriter-for-hire,” your name will not be anywhere on that work. I write product reviews for a big online company, and my name does not appear on those reviews, and while I can provide the company’s info and details about the work I do for them on my portfolio, I can’t take credit for the specific reviews. I get paid very nicely for that work and I have plenty of other writing samples, so I have no qualms. I have another writer-for-hire contract that allows me to have my name on the work. It’s a publishing company, and I am writing a short history book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s life for teenage students. My name will be on the book cover and I can take full credit for it. I can’t, however, sell that book myself, and I don’t get royalties from the sales the company makes. I’m getting paid more than I would for, say, a guest blog post, but I’m not getting paid as high as my usual ghostwriting rate either because I’m actually getting credit. I’ve never had a contract like this before, and I’m trying to feel out if the rate is right for the amount of work and if it’s fair compared to what the client will make distributing the book to schools. I haven’t completed the project, so I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m enjoying trying it out. I really like my contact at the company and the content is more fun to write than any of my other projects.

One last tidbit about these sorts of contracts I want to share is the importance of an indemnification clause. If the contract a company sends you doesn’t have an indemnification clause, DEMAND one. This clause protects you from cuckoo-heads who like to sue left and right. It also protects you if the client somehow goofed and had you write about something they didn’t have the rights to or provided you with false information. Essentially, an indemnification clause says that once the client has approved your work, accepted it, and taken on the rights, it’s their problem. If one of the company’s whose product you reviewed didn’t like what you said about them and wanted to sue, the company who posted the review is responsible for dealing with the legal fees to fight the lawsuit, not little ole you working out of your apartment with only a few thousand dollars in assets to your name. However, it should be noted that work-for-hire contracts also contain a clause about plagiarism. An indemnification clause doesn’t protect you against legal ramifications if you provided the company with plagiarized material, and it shouldn’t. Don’t plagiarize, people! Duh. Now, that plagiarism clause ought to go both ways as well. If the company gave you plagiarized material and presented it to you as their own or added plagiarized material after your turned the content into them, that’s their problem.

If you’re a freelance writer, work-for-hire contracts are going to pop up sooner rather than later. Understand what they are, what purpose they serve, and remember that you are your own boss. Take charge, demand fair treatment, negotiate a fair agreement between your needs and the client’s, and those work-for-hire jobs can be your bread and butter … and sometimes a whole lot of fun.

*I am not a lawyer, people. The info I’ve shared here comes from my own experience and should be taken with a grain of salt.

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