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A work product is a collection of notes and other supplementary materials associated with a final, finished product. This term is used in several different senses with important legal meanings. Some types of work products are protected under the law and belong exclusively to their creators, while others may not be, and can belong to employers or be subject to subpoena in a courtroom setting. When people embark on projects, consulting the law to find out who owns which parts of the project can be important.
In the sense of producing work for an employer, the employee's work product usually belongs to the employer. Someone developing a new business process for his company would have to turn over not just the finished product, but the documentation developed along the way. The company can choose to use this information in a variety of ways and can make changes to the final product on the basis of personal preference and in response to new needs.
When someone works as an independent contractor, the law is different. The work product may be part of a proprietary process, and that person only needs to provide the finished product as requested. Documentation, including things like raw files, notes, and so forth, belongs to the independent contractor. A contract may specify turning over the work product, in which case this material also goes to the employer.
In law, the work product includes papers attorneys generate while meeting with clients, developing trial strategies, and so forth. This material is proprietary because it may include confidential information, as well as plans and strategies for conducting a trial. When the other side puts in subpoena requests as part of the discovery process, the work product is not subject to subpoena and people can choose to retain it. In some situations, documentation produced by someone like a private investigator conducting inquiries for the employer is subject to subpoena, and attorneys need to be careful about handling such material.
Laws about work products can vary between nations, and it is important to review them carefully to make sure they are fully understood. Contracts can also override legal defaults. People embarking on professional relationships should always read over their contracts to get information, and can request clarification or contract amendments if they have concerns about certain aspects of the contract. It may be helpful to have an attorney review major contracts for any hidden surprises.