woman at conference table with notebook - work for hire agreements

One of the primary advantages of being a freelancer is the freedom to choose your own projects. You get to exercise your creative muscles as you see fit. You imagine, you create, you get paid.  It’s all very epicurean. You are what Richard Florida refers to as a “Creative”. (I used to be a HUGE Richard Florida fan. Henry Cloud, too.)

What’s more, as writers, we actually create works now that will generate residual income for us for years to come… unless you give up that right by signing a Work for Hire agreement.


A Work-for-Hire Agreement is a contract that transfers the ownership and copyrights for the work you create to the client paying you to do the work.

So, as a ghostwriter, you may write an article, report, or book and once you get paid, you’re essentially agreeing to give up your rights to whatever you just created.

Here’s How Ownership of Freelance Articles and Books Plays Out

Here’s the skinny: You establish ownership of a creative work the moment that work is done. You have the exclusive right to copy and make money from the work (copyright).

In the U.S., copyright protection goes into effect the moment your work is published.

A few years ago, publishing a literary work required money, people, and a pool of resources that not many creative types had. These days, you’re published with the click of a button. The cost of publishing an article, report, book, even an album can literally be the dollar you pay to buy a small coffee at the local Wi-Fi-enabled coffee joint where you’re going to sit down to hit Publish. It’s that simple to publish these days. 

For all intents and purposes, “published” work is stuff that can be viewed, heard or experienced by members of the general public. 

EVERYTHING online is a published work, SO…

Most everything online currently has some form of copyright protection. The primary benefit of having copyright protection is it prohibits others from using and PROFITING from your work without first getting your permission and cutting you in on the action. Yay!

The operative word there is profiting.

In order to encourage creative freelancers and other artistic creators to share their wonderful works, copyright laws were created to protect their inherent rights as content creators.  Since your rights as a creator are automatically protected, clients who hire you to create something for them will often have you sign what’s called a Work for Hire agreement.

What a Work-for-Hire Agreement Actually Does

Section 101 of the copyright law defines a “work made for hire” as:

  • A work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment, or
  • A work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

Work-for-hire agreements re-assign the rights of the work you create to the client that paid you to create it. 

Without work for hire agreements, creative freelancers can be commissioned and paid for artistic works that never legally change ownership.  In exchange for some kind of consideration –whether money, influence or something else you deem valuable – you agree to relinquish any further rights to the work you are creating.

Be forewarned…

Creative purists and literary nerds would have you believe that in order to remain a true artist you must never sell the rights to your work.  Instead, purists believe you should license them. They claim selling your work outright cheapens the value of the art itself.

Of course, as a freelance writer and legal owner of your work (and probably a grown w0oman with real bills), you have the right to do with your work whatever you please, even if that means selling it outright.

Which is the better choice? 

That’s up to you. I will say that I’ve written on everything from dog poop to U.S. veterans – two topics that are on opposite ends of the respectrum (I just made that word up). And honestly, I have no further use for the content I created for EITHER of those projects, beyond finding someone to buy them.

Flipside, I can remember ghostwriting a book and using content from a book I’d previously written to finish that book (it was on affiliate marketing) and I do think I should have negotiated something beyond the flat rate I charged to write the book. That was a good book.

Side note: Sometimes you’ll write stuff that’s awesome and the client will sit on it (!!!) and your content never sees the light of day. One of THE BEST books I’ve ever written has never seen the light of day. It was a book on overcoming fear – and it’s AWESOME – but the client who hired me to write it never released the darned thing.

#ugh #eyeroll #rippingmygutsout

I guess my point is that neither option is inherently better. You can decide based on the project itself and your needs at the time. I never recommend being short-sighted. But most clients are willing to negotiate a fee + royalty payment structure.

Make the choice that best suits your needs and goals. A gift like creativity is just that – a gift.  And it’s your choice whether you sell it today or license it tomorrow. Whatever your choice, make sure it best serves you.