A work made for hire is a legal category usually applied to creative works, such as photographs, artwork or writing. The creator of a work made for hire is working at the request of an employer, such as a publisher or a manufacturer. In exchange for pay or another form of reimbursement, the creator agrees to surrender ownership of the work to the employer under U.S. or other applicable copyright laws. The distinction is made because, in most other circumstances, copyright is automatically assigned to the creator.
Under laws such as the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the author of any creative work is legally the copyright holder of that work, even if it is published by someone else. A freelance writer, for example, can sell a story to a magazine but retain the rights to reprint the story later in a book or adapt it into a movie screenplay. Such rights are often defined by a legal contract signed by both parties at the time of sale.
The creator of a work made for hire, on the other hand, agrees that the employer holds the copyright, including reprint and adaptation rights. This also is usually stipulated by a legal contract at the time of hire. The employer can then reproduce, alter, distribute or adapt the work in any way, while the creator has legal right to do none of these things. The only way for a creator to regain such rights is to purchase them from the employer, if this is financially feasible and the employer is willing to sell.
The work-made-for-hire system can sometimes lead to legal battles, such as one that occurred in the American comics industry. From the 1930s through the 1960s, most comics artists believed their work had little value beyond the magazines’ monthly publication dates and willingly signed contracts designating work made for hire. When the comics collecting and merchandising markets emerged, the artists saw their employers making fortunes from characters and stories they had created for small sums decades before. As per the requirements of work made for hire, they had no legal standing to claim any part of these vast profits.
Under pressure from outraged comics fans, publishers grudgingly relented and allowed some high-profile artists, such as Captain America creator Jack Kirby, to reclaim their original artwork. Others, such as Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had to be satisfied with token payments and “created by” bylines. The resulting furor led many comics publishers to re-examine the system of work made for hire. Starting in the 1980s, some prominent artists such as "Sin City" artist Frank Miller could opt for “creator-owned” properties that allowed them to control the copyright and future use of their works.