Silence can be devastating when it comes to intellectual property rights. Under the U.S. Copyright Act, copyright rights in a creative work created by an independent contractor remain owned by the independent contractor, unless a written agreement transfers copyright ownership from the independent contractor to the customer.
This is true for artistic works such as a painting as well as for commercial works such as software code or a design on a company web page.
Artist Dale Chihuly learned this lesson the hard way, having been recently sued by a person alleging he was an independent contractor assist to Chihuly, with no written agreement. As reported in The New York Times, the lawsuit "asks for a finding that Mr. Moi is a co-author of certain works and owns an interest in them."
Chihuly may face additional legal troubles and claims. As The New York Times article references an allegation that artistic assistants were unpaid – a potential violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires payment of at least a minimum wage for most types of work.
Takeaway: Written Agreement Assigning Rights
For any creative work to be created by a "freelancer" or "independent contractor," customers should get a written Independent Contractor Agreement in advance, including an assignment of intellectual property rights, if the customer expects to own the copyright in the created item.