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Do You Really Own Your Logo, Web Site or Other Commissioned Work?

Many business owners assume if they hire a photographer, graphic artist, web site developer or ghost writer that they own the rights in the resulting work. You know what happens when you assume.

It is not always easy to determine who a copyright owner is, particularly where a business hires someone to produce a “work of art” (such as software, logos or other graphic design or a web site).If the work is done by an employee, it is owned by the employer. If the work is a “work-made-for-hire” under the copyright act, it is owned by the company commissioning the work.

The problem is, hardly anything (and I'm being generous) in the statute applies to the average business work-made-for-hire scenario.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act 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 a 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.

This is a rather esoteric list, and the upshot is that an independent contractor graphic artist or web designer may end up owning the software, logo or web site that was commissioned. Many companies assume since they paid for the work, they automatically own it. Other companies never even realize there is an issue.

While there may be implied licenses, it is important for companies to address ownership issues up front via contract.

For more information, check out this information from the US. Copryright Office.

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