The other day, I received an email from a Registration Specialist, Literary Division at the U.S. Copyright Office. She’d written to ask me to submit again/separately the graphics incorporated in a literary work I’d applied (entirely electronically, mind you) to have registered. When I’d sent her the graphics files, she then asked me to confirm that I owned the copyright in each, because if I didn’t, then my single-author application wouldn’t be accurate, and I might have to disclaim something.
I had created all of the graphics but one, which one I’d commissioned from a freelancer. I told the Registration Specialist as much, and she reminded me that it might be a work for hire, at which point I confessed to being a lawyer who has forgotten more about copyright law than most people will ever know… and yet who has never been quite able to wrap his head fully around the concept of a work made for hire. In any event, we agreed that the commissioned illustration is a work made for hire, and the Reg. Spec. told me, “The registration is complete. You should receive the Certificate of Registration by mail in 3-4 weeks.”
Our correspondence didn’t end there, however, as I wanted to pick her brain a bit about what her job entails. (I’m not naming her because I didn’t ask her for permission to excerpt our exchange, and also because her name, while a nice enough name, is not relevant to this post.) About works for hire, she wrote (edited slightly by your blawger):
[T]he law explicitly states that to have a work made for hire, you must have a written agreement stating as much. We get a lot of “Well, my neighbor drew this for me as a favor,” and it can be difficult to explain the legal requirement in a way that makes sense. I think most people don’t realize copyright is a right granted by law (the Constitution, even!) and [therefore] has rules and requirements attached to it.
About the position generally:
The job certainly has a lot of variety. Every day I view between 40 and 50 cases submitted by people from all over. For every J.K. Rowling there are five individuals submitting their unpublished material. We have one guy in California who just sends in pages and pages of his “ideas” scratched out on notebook paper.
Because a lot of people don’t understand the “idea/expression” dichotomy, either, it would seem. I didn’t ask—or, I haven’t yet asked—what she does when she gets pages of ideas, but I might still. I’ll let you know. Also, I imagine that there are more than five people submitting unpublished material for every J.K. Rowling….