Creative pros have been understandably angry at the words work made for hire (WMFH) for some time. I mean, clients try to sneak that into contracts all the time and it means you, creative pro, have to carefully watch out for it, lest you sign that bad boy and end up making the client the author and owner of what should be your copyrights. So sure, those words tend to raise a creative pros hackles.
But this post isn’t about how your copyrights are affected with a WMFH contract; it’s about other effects of such an agreement.
Now, before I go any further, I’m only talking about California law here. If you are in another state, the rules (probably) aren’t the same. That being said, if you ever work in California or for a company in California, you might want to pay attention.
There is another side to WMFH agreements in the Golden State. If you are a sole proprietor business (that is, not an entity of some kind, like a corporation or an LLC), and someone hires you as an independent contractor, and the signed contract includes a WMFH clause, then you are statutorily an employee and the employer has to follow the laws regarding unemployment, disability, and workers compensation insurance as if you were a regular employee. According to the California Labor Code, if a person is hired to create a commissioned work and the parties agree in a signed writing that the work shall be considered a work made for hire, as defined in Section 101 of Title 17 of the United States Code, then, boom, the hired person is a statutory employee. Moreover, the California Unemployment Insurance Code says almost exactly the same thing. Basically, every code that deals with unemployment, disability (including paid family leave) and workers comp has something about WMFH like this.
Anyway, failure by the employer to follow the rules means the employer can be hit with substantial fines and even jail time! Yikes!
So what? you may be thinking, Only the state cares but it doesn’t really affect me, but you’d be wrong. Those are rights to which you are entitled under California law. If you get injured on the project, for example, Workers Comp should pay your medical bills (roughly speaking). Also, the law is unclear about other benefits that employers in California must supply to employees so it may be that you, as the employee, are entitled to other things… like being paid as an employee (including having the employer pay its half of FICA) rather than an independent contractor, having limits on time/overtime, etc.
If you live and generally work in some other state but come to California for a WMFH project, then you too would likely be considered a statutory employee under California law as well,and maybe if the company is here but you aren’t. Also, if you work physically here, your pay would probably be subject to California personal income tax withholding.
Most importantly, if you are in California (resident/business) and you hire assistants or other independent contractor workers and you have a WMFH clause in the contract you have these people sign, you also need to know this info. You have to follow these same rules! There are ways to avoid some of these issues (for example, maybe an assignment clause instead of a WMFH), but there are downsides to the other options as well. Talk to an attorney to get the best advice for your particular situation.
Oh, and don’t forget, if you are in California, you really, really must pay your people on time.
 California Labor Code Section 3351.5(c).
 California Unemployment Insurance Code Section 686.
 The statutesdon’t seem to say explicitly one way or the other; a court could possibly make the analogy and apply the same rules to pay, time off, etc.
 Id. (That means, same source as I just cited, for the non-nerdy readers).