work for hire

Work For Hire agreements from a musician’s perspective

In a follow up to our Work For Hire post that looked at these agreements from the producer’s perspective, this post gives advice to musicians being asked to perform/record and sign a WFH contract.

Music creation can be wonderfully collaborative — but when you’re working with a team in the recording studio, things can become more complicated after the final notes have been played, tracked, mixed, and mastered. One big question that emerges for many indie musicians and bands is, once the song is finished, who owns what?

Ownership-related misunderstandings about money and royalties can turn into big problems if everyone isn’t on the same page, especially if a song becomes a hit. That’s why, in many situations, independent music makers may encounter the subject of Work Made For Hire — a.k.a. Work For Hire or WFH.

“Work Made for Hire is a concept in copyright law that transfers an independent contractor into the equivalent position of an employee,” says San Francisco copyright attorney Linda Joy Kattwinkel. “The consequence is that the client who is hiring you for work on a Work For Hire basis is considered to be the copyright author and owner of the work that you make as an independent contractor.”

As mentioned in “Work For Hire agreements: The producer’s perspective,” a WFH agreement means that you, as the hired musician, are being asked to create something new (e.g. write, arrange, record a part) and are being paid for your contribution. That means that any recorded tracks, arrangement tidbits, or other musical contributions that you create during that session will belong completely to whoever is behind the session — and not to you — in exchange for whatever compensation you’ve negotiated.

WFH can seem intimidating if you’ve never dealt with it before, but when used properly, it can be a helpful tool to use and understand. Here are some key tips from Kattwinkel to help you get started.

Expect WFH in a variety of contexts

Kattwinkel says that, when you’re working as an independent musician, WFH can come up any time you’re hired to participate in a recording project. So regardless of whether you’re a backing vocalist or session bassist, synth programmer or string arranger, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to review and sign a WFH agreement.

“It applies to any situation where you’re being paid to contribute your talents, but the person hiring you wants it to be clear that he or she will own the results outright, and that you won’t be getting anything for the recording beyond what you’re being paid for the gig,” says Kattwinkel.

Do your homework

If you’re working on a session and are asked to sign a WFH agreement, make sure you get to review it ahead of time. Also, make sure to get the help you need to fully understand what you’re being asked to agree to.

“If it’s your first time encountering WFH in your career, I highly recommend getting a brief review by a lawyer, just to make sure you understand what the agreement says and that it all makes sense in your situation,” says Kattwinkel. “Once you’ve had an initial experience with WFH, you’ll be informed enough to figure out the next form, and you’ll also have enough information to know when something is bothersome and requires more investigation.”

Music lawyers can be expensive, so if your budget is tight, organizations like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts or your local Recording Academy chapter are great places to start.

Be specific about compensation — and don’t be afraid to negotiate

When you’re asked to sign a WFH agreement, you’re basically being asked to give up any ownership over the music you’re helping to create — so it’s only fair that any document you sign explicitly states how much you’re being paid for your work. Depending on how well you know who you’re working with, and how much you trust them, you may also want to specify in writing specifically when you will be paid, and whether you’ll be receiving those funds via check, cash, or another method.

In short, when it comes to money in the music business, less ambiguity generally leads to happier music-making for everyone involved — so make sure your WFH agreements are no exception.

And whether it’s about money or another matter entirely, if you read something in a proposed WFH agreement that feels weird to you, don’t be afraid to ask for a revision to the agreement. As long as your suggested changes are reasonable, hopefully any concerns can be resolved quickly and amicably.

Know when not to sign

In many situations, WFH agreements can be fair and useful when it comes to clarifying who owns what and making sure that the producer, artist, or label has the control he/she/it needs of the finished song. In other situations, WFH can be exploitive, unfair, and even inappropriate. How do you smell the difference and avoid signing something you’ll later regret?

“WFH is appropriate if you’re a gig musician hired for a session, for example, but not so much if you’re a headliner or a composer or songwriter,” says Kattwinkel, “really, anything where you’re trying to market your music in a way where you continue to earn royalties from what you’ve done.”

“Also, if you’re in a band, WFH generally doesn’t make sense,” Kattwinkel says. “There should be agreements in those situations where band members are basically equal partners who share equally in copyright ownership.”

Read part one of this series, “Work For Hire agreements: The producer’s perspective“.


Learn more about Work For Hire Agreements
Works Made for Hire: Good Or Bad For Musicians? (TuneCore Blog)

Watch Out for Work-for-Hire (BMI)

Composing Music for Games and Work for Hire: Deal… or No Deal? (GameSoundCon)

For more on Linda Joy Kattwinkel’s work, click here.


Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

Learn How to Make a Great Master

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