Understanding Copyright As A Freelance Animator

Posted by | September 16, 2020 | animation jobs

Understanding Copyright As A Freelance Animator

Estimates from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that employment for animators and other multimedia artists is expected to grow 8% by 2026 due to the rising demand for high quality animation in TV, film and video games. While this is great news for the animator, the fact that an increasing number of people in the profession are working on a freelance basis means that it’s vital to know your rights when it comes to the copyright of your work. Working in a salaried position means your employer takes legal responsibility, but when you’re your own boss, it’s essential to understand this yourself.

Know when you’re freelancing

Firstly, it’s important to bear in mind that you are still a freelancer if you are not on a company’s payroll, even if you’re not working remotely and you are on their premises for some of your time. While you’re employed by a company and working in their building, you will be covered by their workers’ compensation policy and other privileges extended to employees. However, you are only classed as an employee if you are on their payroll. If you control the service you provide them and how you provide it, and you invoice them on completion of the work, you are still an independent contractor, and will not be covered by these policies.

 Copyright for clients and employers

To an extent, copyright is more straightforward than this: whether a piece of animation you create is for a client or an employer, copyright rules remain the same. When you create a piece of work for yourself, ownership is clear: you have made it using your skills and your own equipment, and you’ve made it for yourself. However, when what you’ve created has been commissioned by a client, your contract means that the work will be owned by them. When they buy your service, they are also buying ownership of your animation. You can’t, therefore, resell the same piece of animation to a different client — and this is especially true if it contains copyrighted images that belong to your client.

However, you do have the right to include the work in your portfolio, as it results from your intellectual property. This also applies to any work you do in employment rather than on a freelance basis. If part of your work is ‘in house’, you will retain intellectual copyright to your animation, even though you’ve worked on a company’s premises using their equipment and software. However, just as with a client who’s bought your services as a freelancer, ownership of the content will belong to your employer.

When does your work classify as ‘work for hire’?

Under The Copyright Act of 1976, the work you do as a freelancer is considered to be work for hire only if the job is specially commissioned, there was a written agreement stipulating that the work was for hire, and the work was “a contribution to a collective piece of work, [or] a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work” (there are more types of work covered that do not fall under an animator’s remit). All of these conditions must be agreed on in advance in order for your work to class as ‘work for hire’. If any is missing, copyright remains with you as the creator.

However, the word ‘copyright’ isn’t as straightforward as it seems. For you as a freelance animator, the agreement you make with your client is usually that they buy the copyright, while you keep the original creative work. But copyright can be itemized and split by media, region, market and time. This means that if you create an animated short film, you could come to an agreement with your client that they have the rights to the HD MOV file for a year, but they are only to use it in LA. This gives the copyright limits in media, time and region. This comes with a distinct advantage for the client: when you itemize the copyright, you can reduce the cost for them, and they only need to pay for the specific copyrights you’ve granted them. However, if they later wish to expand, they will need to buy further rights from you.

Whether you’re working as an independent contractor or you’re employed by a company, it’s essential to know your rights. As an animator, this extends to ownership of the copyright of your work. Be sure that your agreement with your client is clear, and if you’re in any doubt, check against the The Copyright Act of 1976.

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