It is important to recognize that in most cases, the original creator or author of the copyrighted work is the owner of the copyright. If an employee of a company creates the work, the copyright may belong to the company under the work-made-for-hire doctrine of the United States Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 201(b)), provided the work is created within the scope of his or her employment. If an independent contractor is hired by the company to develop copyrightable subject matter, the contractor will remain the owner of the copyright unless the parties agree in writing that the work is a work-made-for-hire and that the work fits within certain enumerated categories listed in 17 U.S.C. § 101.
To be sure that ownership is transferred, a company should identify, in any agreements with independent contractors, that the resulting work is deemed a work-made-for-hire in accordance with the United States Copyright Act and, if not, that the independent contractor will agree to assign their rights to the company.
This issue is of particular importance when an outside contractor is hired to develop a web site. If the hiring company does not get a written assignment from the contractor, the contractor will remain the copyright owner and may prevent the company from hiring a new party to assist in further web site development or modifications, since such activities may infringe the original developer‘s copyright. Such an assignment of rights should be included in a web site development agreement. If an independent contractor is hired to develop any Internet related technology or other form of intellectual property for a company, the hiring party should consider an assignment of rights as part of their written agreement.
For more information, see our post, Patents for Minnesota Employers | MN Employee Invention Rights.