I've heard that if one is a professional photographer that it's bad to perform work on a "work for hire" contract. Why is this situation unfavorable to the photographer?

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    Can you please explain what is "work for hire" contract?
    – ysap
    Jan 13, 2011 at 17:40
  • I didn't go into details on what the contract is, figuring that the answers would cover it. It seems, thus far, that the responses are addressing the issue.
    – ahockley
    Jan 13, 2011 at 21:27
  • So, is it a work that you do upon order with a customer and a contract, as opposed to finding clients to your already made product (photographs in this case)?
    – ysap
    Jan 13, 2011 at 23:20
  • 'Work for hire' contracts are gigs where the person hiring you gets the photographic work product, and the copyright is transferred to them. The implication being that you give up the ownership of the photograph for all time (thus you cannot derive any potential future income from it), and, as they own the photograph outright, they can do whatever they want with it (including deriving additional income, and/or changing it materially) without needing to seek you approval first. Jan 13, 2011 at 23:51
  • 1
    The legal concept of "work for hire" goes beyond photography, but also into painting, sculpture, software design, and more. The end result is the same: copyright is transferred to the hiring entity complete and unencumbered.
    – Mei
    Jan 14, 2011 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


I am assuming that this is in reference to United States Law.

Under US law, a copyright is assigned at creation to the employer or person for whom the work is created if it is done as a "work for hire".

This means that you, as the photographer, are not the owner of the copyright.

If you instead use a contract that gives you the copyright, you are then able to license the work, and you then have control of the work. If you don't own the copyright to your works then you can run into situations where you would be required to obtain a license in order to make use of an image that you created.


I do 'work for hire' assignments all the time as part of my business.

I think the real 'danger' is not getting paid an appropriate amount in order to relinquish the copyright to my work. If you've set your payments appropriately, then work for hire can be extremely... and I mean extremely... lucrative for a photographer.

  • 1
    On the other hand, what one now considers to be extremely lucrative snapshot of some lousy band might become an iconic photo 10 years later, and if that happens then the current amount might seem ridiculous. So be careful not to find yourself in situation like Carolyn Davidson with en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoosh
    – che
    Jan 13, 2011 at 22:00
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    Sounds like she ended up with a diamond ring and Nike stock in the end...not the worst deal...
    – rfusca
    Jan 13, 2011 at 22:47
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    I think many photographers suffer from the all too common delusion that 'my photography is SOOOOO valuable.' No it's not. For every one Carolyn Davidson I can easily find you 1000 photographers that are starving because they held on to their 'principles' and didn't 'sell out' for cold hard cash. The VAST MAJORITY of photographers will be FAR better off financially to take work-for-hire gigs as they come and price their photography accordingly in order to make a very reasonable living, and it is just short of pure myth to perpetuate any other view. Jan 13, 2011 at 23:37
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    There actually aren't all that many work-for-hire situations that come around (for me I just do a few per year), and for the most part they come from large national or international companies repped by agencies where it is cheaper (and less paperwork) to simply buy the photo(s) for an inflated price, than to negotiate for every region of the world that they will be using the photograph. It's not like an open market where there are prices to be driven down... The ad agencies controll this stuff pretty tightly ('cause it affects their bottom line as well). Jan 14, 2011 at 0:00
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    Generally speaking these things mostly aren't for such 'interesting' things as 'take a picture of that hot new band,' it's more 'take a picture of my boring product or packaging.' Things that it'd be difficult to derive a future income from anyway... But then I bought my house on work-for-hire gigs, so maybe I'm a little biased... Or according to some of my photographer friends, I'm a photography whore. :-) Jan 14, 2011 at 0:01

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