Ask Author Law

Am I an employee? My work-made-for-hire contract is not consistent.

November 30, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, WMFH, Work for Hire, Books, Contracts, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Journalism, Authors, Articles, Non-fiction

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: I’m a full time freelancer who writes for many magazines and newspapers. I’ve just been offered a contract to write one article a month for a web site. It has a clause that says I am to be an employee and that everything I write is to be considered a work made for hire. Another clause says that I am an independent contractor. So, if I sign, what will my employment status be?

A: I haven’t seen the entire contract, but it sounds like this web site is trying to insure that it will both own the copyright and avoid responsibility for tax withholding, social security and other such obligations of an employer. WMFH is a tricky concept with two meanings under copyright law. It sounds like the contract was patched together by someone confused about copyright but trying to avoid paying a lawyer.

Whenever a contract is internally inconsistent, it could be subject to interpretation by a court if a dispute arises. In this case, I suspect the court would decide that the “employee” language is less significant than the “independent contractor” language. You might suggest that the language be clarified. If it isn’t, however, I don’t see this as being a big problem for you as long as you understand that you are giving up copyright ownership and won’t be getting any employee benefits.

You should be sure to include all income you receive from this website on your taxes, regardless of whether it sends you an IRS Form 1099. The website could come to the attention of the IRS if it has freelancers writing for it exclusively. Companies sometimes try to designate employees as independent contractors in a mistaken effort to avoid the responsibility for payroll taxes and insurance. As long as you are a true freelancer writing for a variety of publications, the IRS is not likely to consider you as an employee.

If you have any doubts about this website and its inconsistent contract, you may want to think twice about taking this assignment. That said, the legal risk to you is slight. The website could face legal problems, but if you keep good records, continue to write for other publications, and declare all of your income, you should be OK. If working for this website becomes a substantial part of your workload or if you think you should be entitled to employee benefits you would be wise to consult a lawyer.