"Work product" is anything you complete under the instructions of a person who has hired you. Who owns the work that you do depends on whether you are working as an employee or as an independent contractor, and whether you have sold any of your ownership rights through a written employment agreement. An employment agreement that is signed before work on the job begins can avoid misunderstandings and protect your rights.
Employers Own the Work Completed by Employees
If you are a regular employee who collects a regular paycheck, the work you complete while doing your ordinary job belongs to your employer. Even if your work product makes your employer a lot of money down the line, you are not entitled to anything beyond your paycheck. An employment agreement will typically restrict you from using your work product in any unauthorized way. In some situations, an employment agreement will prevent you from creating another product for your own use that is too similar to the one you created for your employer.
Independent Workers Own Their Creations
If you are working for a company as an independent worker and not as an employee, you own your work product. You are responsible for delivering whatever you have agreed to provide to the employer, which is usually a finished product. You get to keep all of your drafts and editable copies. If your work is an original creation that can be protected under copyright laws, you own the copyrights as the creator.
You Can Sell Your Rights to Work Product
The ownership of work product can be negotiated in the contract between you as an independent worker and the company that hires you. You can agree to give up your rights as the creator of original work and agree to provide work product in a format that the employer can modify and reuse. This type of arrangement is usually called an assignment or a work-for-hire. Typically, an independent worker will charge an employer a premium to allow this type of transfer of ownership.
Employers Will Require a License to Use as a Minimum
Even if you decide to keep basic ownership of your original work, most employers will want the employment agreement to contain a license to use the work going forward in more than one way. Without establishing formal permission to use the work in a variety of ways in a written employment agreement, the employer has very limited right to use your work. That right may extend only to a single, specific use.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding ownership of work product is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an employment lawyer.