I’ve never really read contracts for publishing articles and reviews closely, but just recently I’ve caught wind of a change among many academic publishers. Instead of allowing the author to retain the copyright, publishers wish contributors to offer their writing as a ‘work for hire’, which is a category used for the intellectual products of an employee, e.g. a copy writer for an advertising agency.

Or so I thought. As with many issues of property, there is a tangled web of rights and obligations, and no single clear-cut meaning to the term. For instance, Kevin Smith, commenting on Steven Shaviro’s experience with Oxford University Press, sees it as an attempt by academic presses to get more value from their authors. Oxford University Press responds on their web site and seems to be implying that they are trying to protect the copyright of the editors of collective works.

So why do academic presses use ‘work for hire’ agreements? And are there alternatives?