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How can freelancers copyright their work?

Copyrights come in two forms: registered or unregistered. Nothing actually has to be done for content or creative works to have copyright protection as an unregistered copyright. A copyright exists the moment something unique is created. However, for copyright owners to better protect their creations, federal registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is highly recommended. Registering a copyright provides the owner with substantially more legal rights to stop others from using their work without permission and to recover more money when copyrights are violated. 

Creative freelancers will generally own the copyrights to the content or creative products they create. This ownership may be limited by the various types of contracts that a creator signs before or after a work is completed. Often freelancers will provide clients with the exclusive rights to their creation, but without a Copyright Licensing or Assignment Agreement, creative works are owned by the freelancer who created them. Notably, when creators are bonafide employees of the company they are creating for, rather than freelancers, the copyright owner will typically be the company.

Federal registration with the U.S. Copyright Office can be done online. It generally requires an application be filed and a small fee paid. To notify others that you are claiming a copyright, you may create a separate Copyright Notice. Additionally, creators can add a mark or statement that indicates copyright protection within a document, on a photograph, or somewhere on the work.

What can creators do when clients violate copyrights?

There may be instances where a client uses a freelancer’s original work without permission, or in a way that the freelancer has not approved. A client may believe they have the right to do whatever they wish with the work since they paid for it. They may believe they have purchased all the rights simply by hiring a freelancer. This may or may not be the case depending on the agreement. For example, if a freelancer licenses a self-portrait for use in a marketing campaign for a snack food item, then later sees their self-portrait being used in an advertisement for acne medication, they may not be so happy about that. Other examples could include:

  • Incorporating a picture or artwork licensed only for public display into marketing materials.
  • Presenting a software design created as a client prospectus on a marketing website.
  • Reprinting a substantial portion of original written work without permission for commercial use.

In these situations, a copyright holder may have legal rights they can pursue. The first step, generally, is to contact the client or violator and ask them to remove or cease use of the copyrighted work. The copyright owner may also demand reasonable payment. It may be a mistake or misunderstanding, and if the owner knows the violator, a simple message via email, text, or phone may be effective. Clients may respond quickly. Others may not. Notably, a copyright holder does not have to provide this informal notice before taking legal action.

If informal communication is not effective, then legal action may be needed. Usually, the first step is to send a Cease and Desist Letter. This formally notes the violation as well as the legal rights to the original work and to enforce the copyright. The letter should inform the violator of the consequences of continued misuse and may also include a demand for payment. If a Cease and Desist does not work, a lawsuit may need to be filed.

Can clients sign their name to my work?

Yes, so long as you allow it. The right to attribution is commonly referred to as the moral rights and it is as complicated as the name implies. You may sell your work either by licensing to a client the full exclusive rights to use your work as they see fit or a limited right to use your work. You may require proper attribution or credit in your agreements, or not. Creators should be aware, however, that a Copyright Assignment may be used to transfer all of your rights for a particular work and may include the right to take credit for the creation. If attribution is important, then it should be clearly explained in any agreement to avoid future confusion.

Creators may also assign partial rights. For example, the client may have your permission to use the work, but not your permission to sue for another’s infringement or take credit for its creation. An assignment can be temporary, only for a few years, or in perpetuity (meaning forever). The assignment must be in writing and signed by both parties. Often, an assignment will be part of a contract with a client. Depending on the employment relationship, as described below, the assignment of rights may be automatic.

What is work-for-hire and when does it apply?

The phrase work-for-hire applies when an original work is created by an employee rather than a freelancer. In the work-for-hire situation, the work is the exclusive property of the business, which means that the business owns the copyright and can claim whomever they wish as the creator. Generally, a freelancer’s work does not qualify for work-for-hire status because they are independent contractors, not employees. Freelancers will retain all the rights to their original work even though it was made for a client, unless a full or partial assignment of those rights was made in an agreement.

Can I license parts or all of my copyright to more than one person or business?

Yes. It may be to your advantage to license your copyright to one or more clients or businesses. For example, you may want to allow one company to use a song you recorded in its advertising campaigns, but you don’t want them to make changes to the song. You would, in that case, grant a license giving the company only the rights to play the song. Understand, however, that if you sign an agreement granting an exclusive license, licensing your rights to any other party may violate that exclusivity agreement. For example, suppose you earlier granted an exclusive license to a DJ to take your recording and make changes to the song and also play your song during performances. If you did that, your agreement with the company could lead to legal liability because it grants rights to the company that are exclusive rights that were already granted to the DJ. 

When you enter into a Copyright License Agreement, you do not give up your ownership of the work, but you do allow another person or business authorization to use it.

Can copyrights be jointly owned?

As a creative working with a client, you may collaborate to create something original. In a collaboration, both parties that shared in the creation have ownership and copyright interests. When copyrights are jointly owned by client and creator, both may share in the proceeds and retain equal rights against copyright infringement for that property. Each co-owner can assign their interest in a copyright, but cannot grant an exclusive license without the permission of the co-owner. 

Like many other copyright issues, joint ownership of copyrights can be rather complicated. If you have legal questions about copyright ownership, licensing, or disputes, contact a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney to get answers.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


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