FYI: Do You Know Your Freelancing Rights?


Do you know what your legal rights are when you work for hire?

Do you know where you are covered and why?

How do you get a copyright? Is it expensive? Can it be taken away from you? How long does it last?

Do you really know what you are giving away every time you’re paid to create a masterpiece?

All of these are questions that you need to know by heart if you are freelancing. Read on for more information.

Legal Artistic Protection

Copyright laws are pretty specific about what they cover and what they don’t. According to the website

“Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.”

But what does this mean to us? It means that under normal circumstances our creations are our own to do with as we please. No one else can beg, borrow, or steal your work without repercussions. And the neat thing is that copyright is automatic. Whether you are creating music or writing the next best seller or creating a website, your work is automatically copyrighted, unless you create it for someone else.

An Important Exclusion

When you create a business card, brochure, website or anything else for another person, it creates what is called a “work for hire” situation. This is an actual exemption in the copyright laws and it says if you have a regular job working for someone and they have you make something, it belongs to them, not you. You don’t get to share in the glory or even have bragging rights unless they give you permission, right down to putting their name on it.

This also applies if you are a contractor or freelancer like most of us. Here’s the catch. In order for the exemption to apply, two things have to occur.

  1. It has to fall into one of the nine categories covered in the copyright laws.
  2. There has to be a written agreement between the parties about the work being done.

This means every time you write a work order or agreement to work for someone, you need to be specific about its usage. Do you plan to include this work in your portfolio or enter it in a competition? If you get paid, you need to have permission to use it in that manner. If you don’t write in provisions in to cover that, you can’t legally use it.

Legally, you can’t even put your name on something if you did not specify you wanted credit for the work. If you are in doubt, check out Specifics are on Page 2. That will make you go HMMMMM, won’t it?

Sensible Precautions

It is for this reason, as freelancers, we have to be ever diligent about the legalities of our profession. Make sure your personal work is recorded and specifically written to keep you protected. If you are concerned about protecting what is legally yours, consider registering your copyright. This is different from having an automatic copyright. Registering your work creates a public record of what you have created. This protects you against infringement issues and lasts seventy years past the life of the author. There is a nominal fee of $35 if you file online and $45 if you file the old fashioned way (USPS).

If you’re just starting as a freelancer, make sure you know the rules of the game. If you’ve been doing this a while, make sure to keep up with the rules, because they change every year or so. All of us work too hard for our money to give it away and not even get a little credit in the byline. Ask or include a paragraph of permission about showing your work for hire projects in your portfolio or entering in contests. Make sure if your name goes on, it stays on. If you ask, most companies will agree to this without a fuss as long as they retain all the other rights. Keep track of written permission by putting it right on the work order or including it in the signed contracts and making sure the client knows it is there.

One last note on this, if a person or company does not pay for the service, it is illegal for them to use the work even if it is a work for hire. Until they pay for it, it still belongs to you and unless you authorize its use, they are the ones infringing on your copyrights. Protect yourself, protect your work, and protect your rights, all of them. You can find more information about copyrights by going to to read up on your specific creation and how to protect it.

For those of you who are international freelancers, make sure you read this page: for information about protecting your work internationally.

Lois Knight

About the author: Lois Knight has been a freelance writer and graphic designer for the last two years. She designs predominantly for small start up companies and non profits in need of design services that could not afford them otherwise.

She has a background as an entrepreneur for over twenty years and has dedicated herself to educating people interested in graphics as a career. You can visit her on her new website