Copyright Rules for Freelance Writers

by Vanessa Cross
Copyright laws are designed to protect written, original works.

Copyright laws are designed to protect written, original works.

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You have written a book about the history of the Moors in Spain or collaborated with other writers on an independent film. For the freelance writer, an understanding of basic copyright rules is especially important when operating this service business, as they determine whether the writer has the exclusive right to copy, publicly perform, distribute and prepare derivative works.

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Independent, Original Works

When a written work is created independently, the writer is considered the author and the unique combination of words is the copyrighted property of the writer as they are being created. Original works that are created independently give the writer the right to license or assign the original work to another, and the writer may benefit from having standard contract forms prepared for this type of situation. This contrasts with a scenario when an original work is created as a work made for hire; here, the employer is considered the author and the writer never has an ownership interest in the created words.

Work Made for Hire

Under the U.S. copyright laws, the work-made-for-hire doctrine applies to either a work prepared by an employee within the scope of employment or a work that is specially ordered or commissioned and fits into one of nine statutory categories of works. The nine statutory categories listed under U.S. copyright laws are: 1) a contribution to a collective work, 2) a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, 3) a translation, 4) a supplementary work, 5) a compilation, 6) an instructional text, 7) a test, 8) answer materials for a test, or 9) an atlas. An example of the first category of work may include both the writer as full-time employee or as a term writer at an entertainment studio. The copyright of these creative works is immediately the property of the employer.

Independent Contractor

If the creator was an independent contractor under written agreement, then the work can only be a work made for hire if it falls within one of the nine statutory categories, according to Michael C. Donaldson in his book "Clearance & Copyright." Note that a play or novel cannot be commissioned as a work made for hire. If a work for hire exists under the nine statutory categories, the parties must have a written agreement that expressly sets out the work-made-for-hire intent. A copyright to original writing belongs to the writer without this express provision in a written instrument.


"A key advantage of copyrights is that protection typically lasts far longer than is needed for most commercial uses," according to Constance E. Bagley and Craig E. Dauchy, authors of "The Entrepreneur's Guide to Business Law." The duration of a copyright for an individual is the author's life plus 50 years. Work-for-hire copyright duration is 75 years from publication date or 100 years from creation date, whichever is shorter. The lifespan of a copyright is measured from the time it is created based on the status of the author. Hence the duration does not increase when an assignment of a copyright interest is made to another party.