Freelance or Work for Hire?

Monday, October 6, 2014

I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers repeatedly used the terms “freelance” and “work for hire” as if they meant the same thing. I kept my mouth shut then, but I stewed about it all the way home. So in order to make me feel better, I’m going to tell you the difference.

Freelance means that you are free to work for anyone on your own time and your own terms. For legal purposes, you are your own employer, and nobody can tell you what to do until you sign a contract. It also means that you own the copyright in your creative product unless you agree to sell it—but that is your choice.

An employee is not a freelancer when doing the job for which he or she is employed. These are not mutually exclusive, however. A journalist may be an employee when writing articles for a newspaper but a freelancer when writing a novel after work. (Some journalists are freelancers even when writing for newspapers and magazines, but these individuals shop their work around rather than earning a salary from one publication.)

Anything created for an employer as part of your employment is a work for hire. When that happens, “freelance” and “work for hire” are incompatible labels. There are some limited situations, however, when an individual does not have to be an employee to create a work for hire. In those situations, the assignment does carry both labels. Next week I will reprint a blog post I did several years ago that discusses work for hire in more detail. But the main point here is that while freelance and work for hire may sometimes overlap, as in the diagram at the top of this post, they are not the same.

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