In California, a “work made for hire” (WMFH) provision in a contract can convert a contractor to an employee. This post describes the statutory basis for this little-known area of the law.
Before providing details, I will note that the (likely unwanted) ability to convert a contractor to an employee will arise only under narrowly-defined circumstances.
- The independent contractor must be an individual rather than a legal entity (a corporation or limited liability company).
- The relevant contract must expressly specify WMFH treatment for the contractor’s work product.
- The contractual relationship must be governed by California law. (I don’t know whether any other states have similar laws.)
In a recently-decided case (JustMed v. Byce), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that a software developer was an employee, rather than an independent contractor, even though the parties had completed almost no employment-related paperwork.
Byce took over development of JustMed’s software from an employee who had moved out of state. Byce’s compensation – the same as his predecessor’s – was 15,000 shares of JustMed stock (valued at $0.50 per share) per month.
As Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Criticism (1711), “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing“. That certainly pertains to the legal concept of a “work made for hire” (WMFH).
People who have some knowledge of WMFH typically believe that it means the transfer of all rights in a work from the creator to a purchaser. So, for example, if an independent contractor writes software for a company, then according to this belief, the company will own all rights to the software if the parties’ contract says the software is a work made for hire. This belief is wrong! The following is an explanation of what work made for hire really means under copyright law and how parties actually can arrange for transfer of all rights in a work.