Dear Rich: I was a contractor that was owed about $50K in the past two years. The employer kept telling me they would pay me back all I was owed. But when I asked when, they refused to give a timeline or they would totally ignore me. We signed Work for Hire agreements for the work in the first two years based upon specific projects. But then we stopped doing it due to mutual trust. I continued to work for them on all the projects coming in. Do I own the work for which I haven't got paid in the past two years? How do I get my money back in an effective way? The Dear Rich Staff is sorry about your turn of events. You might own copyright in the work if you were an independent contractor and if there is no written agreement, or alternatively, there is a written agreement, but the work didn't fit into one of the nine enumerated categories. Even if you own it, the hiring party may have dibs on part of the copyright as a co-author depending on the contribution, if any. And in some cases, a court may awards a nonexclusive license to the hiring party allowing use of the work. The fact that you didn't get paid shouldn't affect either party's claim to copyright. The non-payment is a contract problem, not a copyright problems.
How can you get paid? If you were totally ignored for two years, we're sad to report that you have few choices -- threaten to sue, sue, or do nothing. As a general rule, the longer the debt has accrued, the harder it is to get paid. Perhaps your attorney can obtain some leverage if you can prove a copyright claim in the work. BTW, check to see if the written agreements contain an attorney fees provision; that may be of interest to your attorney.