Using independent contractors (ICs) can give your company an edge in today’s thriving gig economy, but if you are not careful, contractors can also be a serious liability. In fact, working with ICs comes with a number of unique legal and financial risks that can be potentially ruinous to your business if not handled properly.
Beyond getting sued or hit with hefty fines for misclassifying an employee as a contractor, you must also be careful to properly secure ownership of anything an IC creates for you. This is particularly true when it comes to your intellectual property (IP). And whether you know it or not, IP is one of your company’s most valuable assets. A recent study found that up to 80% of the value of today's typical business is made up of different forms of IP.
Do You Actually Own The Work You Are Paying For?
Unlike employees, with whom you generally own automatic copyrights to everything they produce while working for you, ICs typically retain full copyrights to their work—unless they’ve signed a written agreement stating otherwise. Indeed, if you don’t have properly drafted agreements in place, you may not even own the work you pay ICs to produce for you.
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to secure full ownership of these works by using the proper legal agreements. However, this is only possible if you actually put these agreements in place with every IC you work with—and yes, this means every single person, even those you have worked with for years without a single problem.
When it comes to using legal agreements to secure ownership of the work you hire an IC to produce, you have a couple of options. One option is to include a work-for-hire clause in their independent contractor agreement.
A work-for-hire clause states that you, not the IC, own all copyrights to the deliverables he or she produces for you under the agreement. Such a clause effectively makes it as if you created the work yourself, and as such, it allows you to use the work in any way you wish.
Just be sure to have the IC sign the agreement before he or she starts working. If not, it may be too late to acquire full ownership. Additionally, work-for-hire clauses only cover certain types of materials. According to the U.S Copyright Office, in order for a work-for-hire to apply, the work being created must fall into one of the following nine categories:
a contribution to a collective work, such as a magazine or anthology
a part of an audiovisual work or movie
a supplementary work, such as a forward, editorial notes, appendix, bibliography, or chart
a compilation created by selecting and/or arranging preexisting works
an instructional text
answer materials for a test
If the work you hire an IC to create does not fall into one of these categories, a work-for-hire clause would not give you full ownership. This catches many business owners by surprise, who falsely assume having such a clause is all they need. However, if the work you are paying for doesn’t fit into these categories, you will need a different type of agreement to secure ownership of the IP—and as you can see, the type of work covered by work-for-hire agreements is fairly limited.
For works that fall outside of the work-for-hire domain, you will need to include an assignment clause in the contractor’s agreement, in which the IC transfers some, or all, of their copyrights to your business. Without this clause, the IC would retain all rights to the work, even if the agreement contained a work-for-hire clause.
Adding an assignment clause to the IC’s agreement is fairly simple, and for maximum protection, you can even include such a clause alongside a work-for-hire provision. It’s as easy as simply adding a brief clause in the agreement stipulating that if the work is not deemed a work-for-hire, the IC assigns all copyrights to your company.
Non-Disclosure & Non-Disparagement Agreements
In addition to work-for-hire clauses and copyright assignment agreements, all of your agreements with contractors should also include non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements, which would keep an IC from disclosing details about their work with you to outside parties, especially your competitors. A non-disclosure agreement could cover trade secrets, confidential business information, and financial information about your business, and even whether the IC worked with you. Although you may not think of it this way, one of your most valuable items of intellectual property is your reputation. A non-disparagement agreement assures you that an IC is unlikely to tarnish your reputation after working with you.
Don’t Go It Alone
Although work-for-hire, copyright-assignment, non-disclosure, and non-disparagement clauses and agreements are not difficult to create, because each project is unique, there is not a specific template or generic form that would cover every job. What’s more, the wording of each agreement is also important, and some states require specific language for work-for-hire agreements to be legally valid.
Given this, you should steer clear of generic legal agreements you find online, and always have us review your IC agreements, even if they were drafted by another lawyer. Whether you need your existing agreements reviewed or need help creating new contracts we will support you in developing the proper legal agreements that will give you the most comprehensive ownership rights possible with every contractor you hire.
Furthermore, we can perform an IP audit for your company. This audit is a comprehensive, systematic review that identifies all of your IP assets, and evaluates all of the potential risks and opportunities associated with those assets. An IP audit will not only identify your IP assets, it can also help ensure you have all of the necessary IP protections, such as trademarks, copyrights, along with the proper legal agreements governing those projections to ensure you own the full spectrum of rights related to your IP. Contact us today to get started.
This article is a service of Truest Law, Family Business Lawyer™. We offer a complete spectrum of legal services for businesses and can help you make the wisest choices on how to deal with your business throughout life and in the event of your death. We also offer a LIFT Start-Up Session™ or a LIFT Audit for an ongoing business, which includes a review of all the legal, financial, and tax systems you need for your business. Call us today to schedule.