It’s a basic fact: you own what you create unless you sign it away. However, a lot of people don’t realize that just about every employer asks you to give up at least some of your rights, and just about every working librarian is an employee of some sort. As such, it behooves us to maximize our copy rights.
Works for Hire
“Works for hire” means intellectual property created as part of your job duties. The rule of thumb is that employers own brochures, social media posts, videos, slide decks, syllabi, and other content that you create for the marketing or teaching you are paid to do. This means that you might need permission to reuse these works if you change jobs. Note: your employer must identify the works-for-hire provision as a condition of employment, and you must sign off on this condition. Otherwise, your works are not for hire.
Generally, employers cannot claim ownership of works created while employees are off the clock. If you come home from your 9-to-5 and write a blog post, for example, then you own that blog post, no questions asked. But many employers claim ownership of materials created “using company resources.” So if you use your work computer while on lunch break, then you are using company resources. What if you’re operating your personal laptop but using the building’s Wi-Fi or electricity? In that case, I doubt a reasonable employer would claim ownership … but personal hotspots are more secure anyway.
Are you an independent contractor? Then you own your intellectual property unless the contract says differently. For example, when I teach webinars for the State of Florida, I agree to grant the State nonexclusive distribution and reuse rights; however, my contract plainly states that I own and may reuse any materials (e.g., slide decks) created for the webinar.
Do you work for a college or university? Are you faculty or professional staff? If so, then you should own any peer-reviewed articles or other scholarly materials you create. Most universities exempt scholarship from the default works-for-hire policy, even if scholarly output is an expectation for employment. Notwithstanding this exemption, universities commonly claim the right to use your scholarship for their own purposes, such as marketing or internal research. And universities generally do lay claim to your syllabi and teaching materials. Don’t assume a blanket exemption exists for faculty.
Know your rights
Information is power. If you are already an employee, review your employer’s policies or talk to Human Resources. If you are a prospective employee, then ask to see a standard contract or the employee handbook. Most government agencies have this information publicly available online, so knowing your rights comes easily. But if you have to ask, be sure to ask nicely—throwing legalese at bosses or HR is a sure way to ruffle feathers.
Negotiate Better Rights
Try to negotiate better rights and write these terms into your contract before accepting a job or freelance gig. For the contentedly employed, promotions are an opportunity to renegotiate existing contracts. I know a former State of Nebraska employee who got all his output released under a Creative Commons license! Not all organizations are willing or able to grant such exceptions, but it usually doesn’t hurt to ask. At least try to retain moral rights, especially the right to have your intellectual property attributed to you. Or write language into the contract giving you distribution rights without ownership.
When you create something, it’s yours. As employees, let’s work to keep it that way.
Michael Rodriguez is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Previously he worked as E-Learning Librarian at Hodges University in Florida. Michael is an independent copyright trainer and consultant, a 2015 Library Journal Reviewer of the Year, and an avid hiker and cyclist. He tweets @topshelver.