May 1, 2011, 15:59

Often a client who needs original music will be primarily focused on the short-term needs of the project: Does this cue correctly fit the scene? How many revisions of the demo will there be? Will the composer finish on time?

Long-term considerations such as the saleability of the track in a royalty-free music library are not, and really should not be, a factor.

However, obtaining legal permission that allows the musician to enjoy future income from that track, however it turns out,  SHOULD be kept in mind as that composer decides whether or not to accept the job.

When a track can be considered Work for Hire it becomes the client’s intellectual property. What legally makes a piece of music Work for Hire? According to the US Copyright Office website a piece of music becomes the property of you client when it is:

1) A work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment


2) A work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a
collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as
a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional
text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties
expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall
be considered a work made for hire. For the purpose of the foregoing sentence,
a “supplementary work” is a work prepared for a publication as a secondary
adjunct to a work by another author for the purpose of introducing,
concluding, illustrating, explaining, revising, commenting upon, or assisting
in the use of the other work, such as forewords, afterwords, pictorial illustrations,
maps, charts, tables, editorial notes, musical arrangements, answer
material for tests, bibliographies, appendixes, and indexes; and an “instructional
text” is a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication
and intended to be used in systematic instructional activities.

In the next installment of this series we’ll unpack how courts have interpreted these statutes over time, but I won’t keep you in suspense. Here’s the skinny:

Any track you write is a Work For Hire  ONLY if 1) You’re an actual employee of the person or the company commissioning the work (i.e. getting a paycheck) or 2) Both parties have signed a document stating it is a work for hire.

More to come…


Mike Bielenberg is a professional musician and co-founder of, a production music marketplace where media producers and business owners can license high-quality, affordable music from a online community of musicians.

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