Plagiarism…or Work-for-Hire?


Does using a writer’s work in a work-for-hire project mean the person or company who hires the writer can claim it as “original”? What rights can writers/researchers of articles claim? What can the buyer of those articles rightfully claim about the writer’s work? Are the pitfalls the same for a ghostwriter who writes a celebrity book?

As a writer, this whole issue is confusing. This incident above raises copyright, plagiarism, and muddies already unclear rights issues anyway and reminds us all to be careful what we agree to and why it’s important to have a contract!


It is very common for certain individuals to hire someone to do their writing…and then to take credit for it. If it’s a true work-for-hire contract, it really is no different from a ghostwriting gig. The writer gives up all rights, including the right to have their name associated with the piece. The person buying the piece owns all rights and can do with it what they want, including putting their own name on it. It’s a very common practice not only with politicians and celebrities, but also with business owners who get published. I’m pretty sure Martha Stewart and Oprah don’t write all the stuff that appears in their magazines, under their own names.

If a writer gives up all rights, they have sold the entire article to someone else – lock, stock, and barrel, and they can’t be paid nor credited for any future use of the work. Some of these contracts also contain confidentiality clauses that prevent the writer from ever telling anyone they wrote the piece. One my good friends was a ghostwriter for a celebrity and, to this day, he steadfastly refuses to tell me who it was. I have begged, pleaded, and cajoled just to temper my own curiosity but he won’t budge because of the confidentiality clause in the contract he signed. It must be a doozy!

The only exception would be if the person buying the piece didn’t pay for it. If the writer was shafted in the exchange, the “buyer” would not own the rights to the piece because the contract terms would have been breached due to non-payment.

“Literary theft. Plagiarism occurs when a writer duplicates another writer’s language or ideas and then calls the work his or her own. Copyright laws protect writers’ words as their legal property. To avoid the charge of plagiarism, writers take care to credit those from whom they borrow and quote.”
– Source: Cultural Dictionary at

If someone has sold all rights to their work, use of that piece by the buyer would not be plagiarism because that creator no longer owns the copyright to that work.


The FINE PRINT of Self-Publishing – Third Edition
The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies – Analyzed, Ranked & Exposed by attorney Mark Levine.