Ownership of unpaid projects

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  • As a freelance writer I often accept assignments and turn them in, vacating ownership of the intellictual property as work perform by a subcontractor. My question is: If the company for whom the work is performed fails to pay for the property (articles) when promised, does the ownership of that property revert back to me, the author?
  • Works created by an independent contractor are only "work made for hire" that is owned by the employer if there is an explicit agreement to that effect and the work falls into one of nine broad categories that are spelled out in the Copyright Act (see 17 USC 101, the definition of "A work made for hire"). Simply receiving money for the work from the commissioning party does not transfer ownership of the copyright (see the Supreme Court case of Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (1989))

    If you really are an independent contractor rather than an employee, it may be that you have retained copyright in the products of these assignments. It will depend on what the agreements say and whether the works fall into one of the categories of work for hire. If the agreements are not in writing, or the writings are not explicit about copyright ownership, they are insufficient to create a work for hire situation and you will have retained the copyright, whether you are paid or not.

    If the agreements do stipulate that the products of your work are work for hire and therefore owned by the commissioning party, their failure to pay the agreed upon amount would seem to be a breach of that contract, so you could assert that the work for hire agreement was voided by the other parties' breach. A court would have to examine the contract and decide who was right.

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