Writers for Hire – Part 1

If one were to compose a Bill of Rights for authors, ownership of copyright to their works would certainly be close to the top of the list. We hold self-evident the truth that if a person produces an original book-length work, he or she is entitled to proprietorship under the law, and to full benefit of its commercial exploitation.

Yet, it has not always been so. The piracy of literature by printers, publishers, and booksellers has been common practice throughout the world from the dawn of the printed word, and was prevalent in this country until well into the present century. Until the establishment of the first International Copyright Convention in 1891 and its refinement after World War II, respect for the sanctity of copyright was largely a matter of gentlemen’s agreements based strictly on self-interest—don’t steal from me and I won’t steal from you. There are still vast areas of our globe where publishers think nothing of stealing and distributing works of literature from authors and publishers of law-abiding countries, and the emergence of electronic and online media have made it a big business. Piracy of books, videotapes, music, and other intellectual property may be condoned if not sponsored and supported by some governments.

Lest you become too smug that such barbarities cannot happen here, I am compelled to report my observation that the appropriation of authors’ copyrights by publishers and book packagers seems to be on the upswing. Nothing so gross as piracy, mind you. More, I would say, like extortion. But the effect is the same: the deprivation of authors’ rights to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The fruits of an author’s labors include such bounties as royalties on copies of books sold, participation in reprint income, and revenue deriving from the exploitation of serial, translation, dramatization, electronic, and other subsidiary rights. Not everyone shares the conviction that the enjoyment of these monies is a natural and God-given right, however. Indeed, not everybody behaves as if the enjoyment of these monies is protected by statutory law.

The engagement of writers for flat fees falls into a category of employment known as “work-for-hire.” Work-for-hire is a doctrine defining the relationship between a copyright owner and a writer. Note that the owner may or may not be an author; he, she, they, or it may be a corporation (like a movie studio or television production company), a syndicate of investors, or an individual who is not a writer. These entities hire writers to perform a service in pretty much the same way a homeowner hires a cabinetmaker, a painter, or a gardener, except that in this case the task is writing a text for the “boss”—the creator or owner of the idea. The owner is then free to exploit the text in any way he desires with no further obligation to the author.

Some provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act attempt to define the work-for-hire concept, but they do not do so very clearly and have left the door open to unfair exploitation of authors.

I hasten to make clear that all work-for-hire is by no means exploitative. Authors sometimes voluntarily sell all rights to their copyrighted work. And there are numerous situations in which work-for-hire may be considered reasonable and acceptable by normal ethical standards. For instance, the engagement of writers to do articles for an encyclopedia. The copyright holder of the total work is the publisher, and because it would be impractical and uneconomical to pay a royalty to each contributor, the normal arrangement is a one-time fee. As long as the fee pays for the time and effort, the author is usually content, particularly if he or she gets byline credit, for a contribution to an encyclopedia bears great prestige that helps the author endure the low wages.

In the second installment of this article we’ll discuss ghostwriters and book packagers.

Richard Curtis

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