Posted on

When to consider authoring as a work for hire

Work made for hire is writing that is done as part of a person’s job or as an independent contractor who signs an advance written agreement that the work is “work for hire” or “work made for hire.” Authors of a work made for hire have fewer rights than authors who sign a copyright transfer agreement. In effect, the organization that hires the author owns the work. That organization can, within the constraints of the agreement, do whatever they want with the work including adding drastic changes or deciding to not publish it. If the work made for hire is done as part of the author’s regular job, the author will not receive royalties unless a written agreement assigns royalties to the author. In addition, unless there is a specific written agreement that the authors will be credited for their contributions, someone other than the authors, often the department head, will decide if they receive credit for their contributions. Note that there are many circumstances in which professors do not expect to have their names included on the documents they wrote. For example, if you help write recruiting materials your name will probably not be listed as an author, although you should receive credit in your annual performance review.

There is a long-standing tradition that universities exempt textbooks from being considered works made for hire; however, an institution could succumb to the lure of extra income and request part or all of the royalties. Textbook authors know that a textbook is much more than a set of lecture notes. Unfortunately, administrators with little academic experience may not understand that the amount of work required for a textbook is far beyond what is required to teach a class.

Standard advice for academic authors is to avoid writing a book as a work made for hire. Following this advice is often wise; realizing there are circumstances that can make work made for hire the best approach for academic authors. My department was planning to celebrate its 100th anniversary with a gala dinner of all alumni who could attend. As part of the dinner a coffee-table-style-book with photographs and a modest amount of text would be given to every attendee. In addition, active alums who were unable to attend the dinner would be sent a free book. Although the book would be sold by Purdue University Press and on Amazon, only 100 of the print run of 600 copies were reserved for the Purdue Press and Amazon.

Since I was the most prolific book author on the faculty and had been a member of the faculty for many years, I was asked to write the text to match the photographs obtained from archives or taken in house. I would receive one month summer salary to do the writing (as an academic year employee summer salary normally had to be obtained from outside sources).  The photographs were obtained by one of the department’s staff members, a talented amateur photographer. She received her normal salary while working on the book. Both the text author and photographer were promised to be listed as authors of the book.

The book was printed in time to be given away at the dinner, which made the alums and my department head very happy. The book, Pictorial History of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University, 1911 – 2011, is available on Amazon where it ranks as #5,409,002 in books.

The three major factors that made writing this book as a work made for hire attractive were:

  1. Most copies of the book would be given away free. A quick calculation showed that the lump sum payment (salary for one month) was considerably more compensation than potential royalties.
  2. Authors would be credited for their contributions.
  3. Both authors were long-term employees and loyal alums of the university.

A related practice that is not a work made for hire is to offer the author a fairly standard contract except the author receives a lump sum payment instead of royalties. Standard advice for academic authors is to be careful about accepting lump sum payments. I wish I had heard and followed this advice for my first book, a research monograph.  A standard 10% author’s royalty would have been far more than I received as a lump sum payment. Following this advice is often wise; realizing there are circumstances that can make lump sum payments the best approach for academic authors.