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02 Jul 2024

Doctrine of Work for Hire

02 Jul 2024
doctrine of work for hire

The doctrine of “work for hire” is a legal concept that determines the ownership of a copyrighted work when it is created in the context of an employment relationship or under a specific contractual arrangement. The purpose of this doctrine is to establish clarity regarding the rights and ownership of creative works, particularly when multiple parties are involved in the creation process.


Criteria for Work to Qualify as a “Work for Hire”

To qualify as a “work for hire,” certain criteria must be met, although the specifics may vary depending on the jurisdiction. Generally, the following elements are considered:

  • Employee-Employer Relationship: In an employment scenario, the work created by an employee within the scope of their employment duties is automatically considered a “work for hire.” The employer is deemed the legal author and owner of the copyright.
  • Commissioned Works: In some cases, a work may be commissioned from an independent contractor, such as a freelancer or consultant. For such works to be categorized as “works for hire,” there must be a written agreement explicitly stating that the work is a “work for hire” and that the commissioning party will be considered the legal owner of the copyright.

It is important to note that different jurisdictions may have variations in the specific requirements and definitions of a “work for hire.” Therefore, it is essential to consult the copyright laws of the relevant jurisdiction for a comprehensive understanding.


“Work for Hire” In The United Kingdom

In collaborative scenarios, where multiple parties contribute to the creation of a work, it becomes necessary to ascertain the ownership of the copyright. The terms of the collaboration agreement and the intentions of the parties involved play a crucial role in such cases.

The case of Creation Records Ltd v. News Group Newspapers Ltd [1997] EMLR 444 shed light on this issue. The court considered a situation where a photograph was taken by a photographer for a newspaper article. The court emphasized the importance of the contractual arrangements and the intention of the parties involved in determining the ownership of the copyright. The photographer, in this case, retained the copyright as the collaboration agreement did not clearly transfer it to the newspaper.


“Work for Hire” In The United States

In the United States, the concept of “work for hire” is extensively addressed under the Copyright Act of 1976. According to Section 101 of the Act, a work qualifies as a “work for hire” if it is:

Prepared by an Employee: The work must be created by an employee within the scope of their employment duties. In such cases, the employer is considered the legal author and owner of the copyright.

The landmark case of Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (490 U.S. 730, 1989) explored the scope of an employment relationship and ownership of a work. The Supreme Court considered factors such as the control exerted by the employer, the provision of employee benefits, and the nature of the work to determine whether the work was a “work for hire.” The court ultimately ruled that the work in question did not meet the criteria for a “work for hire,” and the copyright ownership remained with the creator.


“Work for Hire” In India

In India, the concept of “work for hire” is not explicitly defined in copyright legislation. However, the Copyright Act, 1957, does provide provisions related to the ownership of copyright in works created in the course of employment. The case of Eastern Book Company v. D.B. Modak (2008) addressed the ownership of copyright in works created by employees. The court held that if an employee creates a work during the course of their employment and it falls within the scope of their duties, the employer will be considered the first owner of the copyright unless there is an agreement to the contrary.

When it comes to works created by freelancers or under contractual arrangements, the ownership of copyright is typically determined by the terms of the agreement between the parties involved. In the case of Indian Performing Right Society v. Eastern Indian Motion Pictures Association (2012), the court emphasized the importance of contractual arrangements and the intent of the parties involved in determining copyright ownership. The court ruled that the ownership of copyright rests with the party who commissions the work unless otherwise specified in the agreement.


Similarities and Differences between U.K., U.S., and Indian Approaches

The U.K., U.S., and India have different approaches to the “work for hire” doctrine. While all jurisdictions consider the employment relationship and written agreements as important factors, the specific criteria and legal provisions differ. The U.S. has a more detailed statutory framework for “works for hire,” while the U.K. and India rely on case law and contractual agreements to determine copyright ownership.


Emerging Trends and Future Outlook

  • Evolving Nature of Employment Relationships: The nature of employment relationships is undergoing significant changes, driven by factors such as the gig economy, remote work, and freelance culture. These developments pose new challenges in applying the doctrine of “work for hire.” The line between employee and independent contractor can become blurred, making it more complex to determine copyright ownership. As the workforce becomes more flexible and diverse, legal frameworks may need to adapt to address these evolving employment relationships.
  • Influence of Technology and Remote Work: Advancements in technology have transformed the creative industries, enabling collaboration and work across geographical boundaries. Remote work has become more prevalent, and creative projects often involve contributors from different locations. This raises questions about jurisdictional issues and the application of copyright laws in cross-border collaborations. Clear contractual agreements and international harmonization of copyright laws may be necessary to provide guidance and ensure fair treatment of creators.


Practical Considerations for Creators and Employers

  • Clear Contractual Agreements: Creators and employers should prioritize clear and comprehensive contractual agreements that address the issue of copyright ownership explicitly. These agreements should clearly define the scope of work, the intended ownership of copyright, and any limitations or conditions related to its use, licensing, or transfer.
  • Negotiating Fair Terms: Creators, especially freelancers and independent contractors, should be proactive in negotiating fair terms that protect their rights and interests. This may involve discussing ownership, compensation, attribution, moral rights, and the ability to use their work for self-promotion or future projects.
  • Consultation with Legal Professionals: Seeking legal advice from professionals well-versed in copyright law is crucial, particularly when dealing with complex projects or cross-jurisdictional collaborations. Legal experts can provide guidance, ensure compliance with relevant laws, and help draft contracts that protect the rights of creators while meeting the needs of employers.
  • Awareness of Jurisdictional Differences: When engaging in international collaborations, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the copyright laws and regulations in the relevant jurisdictions. Being aware of jurisdictional differences can help parties anticipate potential conflicts and take proactive measures to address them through appropriate contractual provisions.
  • Regular Review and Updates: Contracts and agreements should be periodically reviewed and updated to reflect changes in circumstances, business relationships, or legal frameworks. Regularly revisiting contractual arrangements can help ensure that they remain relevant and provide adequate protection to all parties involved.
  • Collaboration and Communication: Open and transparent communication between creators and employers is essential for a successful working relationship. Engaging in discussions about copyright ownership, expectations, and any potential issues can help prevent misunderstandings and disputes down the line.



In conclusion, the doctrine of “work for hire” under copyright law is a complex and significant concept that determines copyright ownership in various employment and contractual relationships. Through our critical survey of cases in the United Kingdom, United States, and India, several key insights emerge. In India, while there is no explicit provision for “work for hire,” the Copyright Act recognizes the ownership of copyright in works created during the course of employment. Ownership in freelance and contractual arrangements is determined by the terms of the agreement. Throughout our survey, it becomes apparent that clear and explicit contractual agreements are vital in all jurisdictions to address copyright ownership and prevent disputes.


The content of this article is for information purpose only and does not constitute advice or a legal opinion and are personal views of the author. It is based upon relevant law and/or facts available at that point of time and prepared with due accuracy & reliability. Readers are requested to check and refer to relevant provisions of statute, latest judicial pronouncements, circulars, clarifications etc. before acting on the basis of the above write up. The possibility of other views on the subject matter cannot be ruled out. By the use of the said information, you agree that the Author / Treelife is not responsible or liable in any manner for the authenticity, accuracy, completeness, errors or any kind of omissions in this piece of information for any action taken thereof.

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