The ownership rights to your work depends on whether you are an employee or an independent contractor. Let’s first discuss the definition of work product and then look at your employee classification and how that affects ownership rights.

Work Product

Work product is anything that you make, complete or even just think of for the company or person that hired you. That’s right, your employer could own just an “idea” of yours. Most people assume that the company they work for or the company that hired them owns their work, but there are definitely times when ownership rights are confusing. This usually happens when an employee doesn’t understand their employee classification or the terms of a contract, if one.

Employee At-Will

Most employees are classified as an employee-at-will. An employee at-will is an employee without a contract. These employees can be terminated for any reason without warning, unless protected by law. If you don’t have an employment contract, you are most likely an employee at-will. Any work that you do for your employer that is related to the business, will be owned by the employer. This includes ideas.

Contracted Employee

If you are an employee and have an employment contract, you will need to refer to your employment contract to see who owns the work product. If your contract does not mention anything about work product, your employer will have ownership rights.

Independent Contractor

An independent contractor works with the employer but not for the employer. Independent contractors control when and how the work will be done. If you are an independent contractor, you may have signed a Work For Hire agreement. This agreement not only details the timeline and payment terms, but may also include language on who retains the rights to the work once completed.

If you signed a contract or other writing, but there is no language as to who owns the rights, the hiring company will still most likely own the rights. There is a law called the Work For Hire Doctrine. Under this Doctrine, the company that commissioned the work will own the rights to the work if the following is met:

1. The work is ordered or commissioned in writing and signed by both parties; and

2. The work is specially ordered or commissioned for use as
a. a contribution to a collective work,
b. a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work,
c. a translation,
d. a supplementary work,
e. a compilation,
f. an instructional text,
g. a test,
h. an answer material for a test, or
i. an atlas.

If your agreement to do the work is not in writing or does not fall in any of the categories listed in number 2 above, you may still have rights to your work. If you fall in this category, I recommend speaking with an employment attorney.

The words and other content provided in the blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as professional advice (please read the Terms and Conditions for additional information).


Alicia Lillegard, Esq.

Alicia Lillegard has over 20 years of experience in employment law, human resources and insurance, working with with large blue chip companies, startups, and not-for-profit organizations. Ms. Lillegard is currently Managing Director of New England Human Capital, a human resources consultancy which advises small and midsize businesses on Human Resources compliance, including employment procedures, employee relations and employee benefits. She holds degrees from Loyola University Chicago and John Marshall Law School.

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