What are Works for Hire?

A photographer who is employed by a company taking pictures for that company as an employee does not own the rights to such photographs. That is work for hire.

Some employers require employees who are hired as photographers to sign a “work for hire” contract.  Even if there is not a contract, the employer owns the rights to all creative works produced by an employee while on duty for the company. The company owns the copyright and can use the images any way they wish. The photographer has absolutely no rights to such works. This understanding does not affect work done by the photographer when s(he) is away from his/her day job.

Works for hire are often not associated with employment. A single assignment such as a wedding or a one-time event can be work for hire. A contract is vital to such assignments before the event occurs. The best way to avoid any hassle is to clearly specify who owns the photos before you take them.  A simple agreement will suffice.  All that’s necessary is to define who owns the copyright.  If you wish to negotiate the copyrights, you might have a client sign a contract that states: “Joe Photographer has been hired by TOPS Company for $1000 per day to photograph the city skyline for a new brochure on September 5, 2022.  TOPS Company will pay up to $____  for travel and other costs. TOPS Company will receive unlimited usage rights of the photos for any advertising, promotional, or decoration purposes, but Joe Photographer owns____ (or does not own_______) the copyright of all photos taken.”

Other details of the agreement can be covered under an ordinary contract form which spells out the image format, who pays for any prints needed, delivery dates and certain limitations of usage of photos if any.  Such agreements must be signed by both parties and copies retained for future reference.


Photographic works on commission and certain assignments can create a gray area. It may not be clear who owns the rights: the photographer or the company who commissions the project. Often, the company will require the photographer to sign a work-for-hire contract, which gives the company complete rights to all photographic work.

A photographer may wish to avoid signing such contracts.  With careful negotiation, agreements can be made that favor both parties. The photographer may be able to retain their rights by contracting certain rights to the company and lowering their fees to compensate for the retained rights.  If a company insists on reserving all rights, the photographer should certainly claim a higher fee for the work.