Who owns a design, the client or the designer? That’s a common question and before you commit to hiring a designer it’s definitely something you should know the answer to. So let’s take a look at what you need to know about copyright.
Let’s imagine that you, the client, have hired a designer to create a piece of work for you. You might easily assume that once the project is finished and paid for, you own the full rights to it.
However, that’s not necessarily the case.
Copyright law assigns ownership of a piece of work to the person who actually created the work. That means it automatically belongs to the designer.
Any change to that ownership depends on the terms set out in your contract.
Don’t have a contract?
Firstly, that’s not something I recommend. Your designer should either be giving you a contract to sign before work starts, or have a set of standard Terms & Conditions that apply to your project. That way you both have a clear record of your rights and responsibilities while working together.
Anyway, if you don’t have a contract, the issue of copyright is super simple. It stays with the designer. They keep full ownership of the design and all files and assets, and if you want to change that you’ll have to ask them and hope they cooperate.
Work for hire?
If your contract is on a work for hire basis, then full ownership of the project passes to you, the employer or client, once full payment has been made.
Most freelance contracts aren’t on a work for hire basis though. Especially in the UK, as work for hire tends to be more of an American thing.
Plus, most independent designers won’t want to have a work for hire contract as they’ll be signing away all their rights. That includes the right to show the work in their portfolio. A designer’s portfolio is a big part of their marketing, so as you can imagine that’s not an appealing prospect.
You might also like: Does having your own domain protect your copyright?
License to thrill
So we’ve already established that most freelance contracts don’t transfer copyright ownership to the client. What does that leave you with?
Instead of full copyright ownership, most contracts grant you ownership of, or a licence to use, the end products while the designer retains ownership of the design, assets and working files (the files used to create the design and edit it in the future).
Your contract or licence should outline what you can and can’t do with those end products. That might include limiting how many copies of something you can print, or in which media it can be used.
It will usually also specify that the designer has the right to display the work in their portfolio and other materials used to promote their services.
Let’s look at a few examples of how this works in practice.
Example 1: A brochure or flyer to promote your business
When the final project deliverable is a printed product, such as a brochure or flyer design, your contract would usually grant your ownership of those printed brochures. You might also be given the PDF print file so that you can print more copies whenever you need to.
But the designer keeps ownership of the actual design – so you wouldn’t be able to duplicate or adapt the design or layout of the brochure, for example if you wanted it turned into a banner image for your website. You’d need to hire the designer again to do that for you.
The designer also owns all the working files. That includes things like preliminary sketches and Adobe InDesign files. So if you wanted to make changes to the brochure before your next reprint, you’d need to either hire the designer to do that for you, or buy the InDesign working file from them if you’d like to work with another designer.
Example 2: An illustration to print on t-shirts you plan to sell
Licensing for products you plan to sell tends to have more restrictions. You’d be granted a licence to print the illustration on a certain number of t-shirts. If you later want to print extra copies, or create other products with the same illustration you’d need to negotiate a new licence with your designer covering those extra uses.
Your contract might also specify a geographical region or time frame that you can use the illustration. For example it might cover you for products sold within the UK for three years. So if you later decide to start selling in the US or want to use the illustration beyond those initial three years, you’d need to negotiate a new contract.
Example 3: A logo design for your new business
Logo design is where things need to be a bit different. It’s really important for your business and your branding that you own your logo outright. (That’s why template logos are a bad idea – you won’t own the design, plus who knows how many other people are using the same template?)
You need to be able to use your logo as much as you want to, anywhere you want to.
So in this case you need to make sure your contract with your designer does transfer ownership of the final logo to you once it’s been fully paid for. Most designers will do that anyway – I have slightly different Terms and Conditions for logo design projects to allow for that – but if your designer is trying to keep full ownership of your logo design, that’s a bad sign. The only thing they really need to keep is the right to use it in their portfolio – to be able to say ‘I designed this logo’ and use that to promote their services.
Do you need to own the copyright?
Most of the time it’s not necessary for you, the client, to get full ownership of a design. Your contract or licence should cover all your needs. So make sure you chat with your designer so you both know what the contract should include.
And you rarely need the working files. You’re unlikely to have access to software to edit them and buying a copy can get expensive. Plus, programmes like Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop come with a steep learning curve to figure out how to use them to edit your file. It’s generally cheaper, faster and just plain easier to get the original designer to make the changes.
So that’s what you need to know about copyright and who owns a design, especially before you start your next project. For more advice about branding your business and working with a designer be sure to sign up to my email list. You’ll get weekly emails with news, tips and subscriber-only exclusive offers. Enter your details below to join.
Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a solicitor so this post is for informational purposes only and doesn’t constitute legal advice. If you have any questions about copyright, licensing or contracts, you should seek appropriate professional advice.
This post was originally published 14th March 2013 and was last updated 30th July 2020.
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