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Work For Hire and Licensing

Work for Hire and Licensing

In music production, you’ll generally encounter two primary approaches: “Work For Hire” and “Licensing.”

“Work For Hire” involves projects where the ownership rights belong to someone other than the original creator. This approach is categorized into two situations:

  1. The work is produced by an employee as part of their job responsibilities.
  2. The work is specifically commissioned by a third party.

In both cases, there’s a financial exchange and a transfer of rights from the creator to the purchaser or employer, effectively making “Work for Hire” akin to buying the work outright.

For instance, hiring a composer to create music specifically for your project would fall under “Work for Hire.”

The defining feature of “Work for Hire” is that the commissioning employer or party assumes complete copyright ownership of the work, leaving the original creator with no ownership rights.

Work for Hire - refers to works whose ownership belongs to a third party rather than the creator

Let’s examine a Work for Hire agreement through a scenario involving artist Shonda, and Nike, a company interested in commissioning her to create music for their advertising campaign.

Shonda, known for her music’s popularity on Spotify, catches Nike’s attention, leading them to propose that she compose a custom song for their next ad campaign.

Under this proposal, outlined as a Work for Hire, Shonda would be tasked with creating a song exclusively for Nike. For her creative contributions, she would receive financial compensation.

The key aspect of a Work for Hire agreement is that Nike would hold ownership over all rights to the completed work. This includes both the Performing Arts (PA) copyright, covering the song’s composition, and the Sound Recording (SR) copyright, related to the actual recording. As a result, upon project completion, Shonda relinquishes all ownership rights, making Nike the sole copyright holder of the song.

However, a common practice within Work for Hire contracts allows the creator, in this case, Shonda, to collect “writer’s share performance royalties.” These royalties are issued by television networks and other broadcasting entities when the song airs, with no obligation on Nike’s part to pay these. Therefore, although Shonda won’t own the rights to her composition for Nike, she remains eligible to earn writer’s share performance royalties.

Performance Royalties

Think of Work for Hire as buying the rights outright, as seen when Nike obtained complete rights to Shonda’s song.

Moving to Licensing, this concept can be likened to renting rights for a composition, sound recording, or both.

Licensing is often utilized for music that’s already been released but can also apply to works in progress.

Under a licensing agreement, the copyright holder allows the licensee specific permissions. These can include performing the song, distributing it, making copies, or synchronizing the music with video content.

Licensing - refers to the officially permitted use of a piece of music (composition, recording, or both)

Let’s now look at a licensing scenario involving Shonda, who has a collection of songs on Spotify. Picture this: Nike stumbles upon one of her songs and wants to use it as the backdrop for their upcoming campaign. Nike contacts Shonda with a proposal to license this song for their campaign. This implies that Shonda would permit Nike to use her song, likely on a non-exclusive basis, in exchange for a fee.

Let’s look into some real-world instances of music that were created through a work for hire arrangement and licensed music:

  1. Work for hire: The musical score for the movie “The Lion King” and the television show “Game of Thrones” are prime examples of compositions created (most likely) under a work for hire agreement. In these cases, the music was crafted by a team of composers who were commissioned by the Walt Disney Company and HBO respectively. As a result, these companies (most likely) hold complete ownership of the music’s copyrights.

  2. Licensed music: On the other hand, we have instances where music was licensed for use in different media. For example, Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” was used in Apple’s iPhone 6 commercial. To do this, Apple had to acquire a license from Pharrell Williams and his record label. Similarly, Justin Timberlake’s song “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” was featured in the movie “Trolls”. In this case, DreamWorks Animation had to obtain a license from Justin Timberlake and his record label to include the song in the movie.

  3. Let’s consider the case of Jason Moss, a composer associated with Bulletproof Bear. For the television show “Toy Box” aired on ABC, Moss played a significant role as composer. He was responsible for creating the custom score highlighting key moments during the season.  Being a work for hire, this music was unique to “Toy Box”, and owned by ABC.

    The “Toy Box” also licensed the entire Bulletproof Bear catalog for the show’s use throughout the season which gave “Toy Box” a wide range of additional music options to choose from.

    In this scenario, we see a blend of work for hire (the custom-written music) and licensing (the use of the Bulletproof Bear catalog). This demonstrates the flexibility and range of options available when sourcing music for television production.


  • A Work for Hire arrangement occurs when an employer or third party hires a creator, and the creator transfers all rights to the employer or third party. (TRUE)
  • In the context of film and television, composers are typically hired on a “Work for Hire Basis”. (TRUE)
  • Licensing refers to the practice of “renting” rights to another party. (TRUE)