Graphic Design Copyrights, Ownership And Usage Rights Review

If you’re new to working with a ItsKaeon.com, you’re probably more than a little confused when it comes to issues dealing with copyrights, ownership, usage rights and licensing issues. Or, maybe you’re completely oblivious to the legal side of commercial art. So who owns your finished website, brochure, logo or other graphic design work?

Unfortunately, I’ve run into quite a few people that have an upside down view on copyright law and graphic design industry best practices. The following is part of a conversation I had with a prospective client about copyright, ownership and usage rights for graphic design and website services. This is a good primer on what you can expect when working with a professional designer. And most of the subjects discussed also apply to other professional creative industries, such as photographers, illustrators, painters, video and audio production, writers, voice talent, and more.

Client's Perspective: I'm Paying You, Therefore I Own It

A lot of clients mistakenly assume that since they’re paying a graphic designer to create a piece of commercial art for them (such as a postcard, flyer or brochure), they own everything the designer produces. And often times, the client also believes preliminary sketches, ideas and concepts not accepted as the final end product are owned by the client. The above is a false assumption.

When you contract a professional designer to create something for you, you are hiring them to produce a finished product, not hiring an employee to work for you. In U.S. copyright law, there is a condition called “work for hire” which basically states that when you hire an employee, all work, including any sketches, preliminary drafts and ideas produced by an employee are under the umbrella ownership of the company the employee works for. But that doesn’t apply when contracting a graphic designer. So to resolve ownership and copyright issues, your graphic design firm will use industry best practices and a contract that stipulates usage and ownership issues.

Graphic Design Firm's Perspective: You Are Commissioning Us To Produce a Finished Product Licensed For A Specific Use

The commercial arts industry is hard wired differently. When a designer produces a graphic design, a website, a brochure, an illustration, etc.; the client only retains the rights to use said piece for a specific purpose. Usage and copyrights transferred from the graphic designer to the client upon completion of the project are based on the type of work being produced, combined with other factors.

This is for two reasons:

1) For example, let’s say a designer creates a brochure for you using a stock image. Your designer has to purchase specific rights to use that image in your brochure. The price of the stock imagery is based upon the type of use, volume of brochures being printed, medium of use (print, web, TV, etc.) and additional factors. If you then take the brochure and decide to modify it for let’s say an advertisement in a trade magazine, you are then using the stock imagery against the licensing rights purchased… making you liable for damages and royalties to the photographer of that stock image.

2) The same usage and copyrights apply to any custom graphics and design work your graphic designer produces for you. You are contracting the design firm to produce finished pieces for you. Not full ownership rights to the work.

It’s the same as if you buy a painting in an art gallery, a book in a bookstore, or a copy of Microsoft Windows. Your purchase of those items limits you to a) display the painting in your home or gallery, b) read the book, and c) use MS Windows on your computer. Your purchase of the painting, book or software does not give you complete rights to the work and prevents you from: making copies of the painting or book for resale, using excerpts from the book for commercial gain, or reverse-engineering Windows and using it for other applications or resale.

With that said, sometimes clients do wish to purchase full rights to a anything a graphic designer creates. And that’s not a problem. Most clients do not because limited rights are less expensive and because they have no intention of modifying say a brochure, website graphics or a multimedia sales presentation for use in other mediums and marketing, such as a television commercial.

Ask your graphic designer about what standard licensing rights are included in their contract and what additional rights or a full-rights purchase would cost. The standard practice is for the graphic designer to charge a percentage of the total cost of the project for “buyout” rights to the piece.

Who Owns Computer Source Files?

Sometimes clients also want ownership of the graphic or web designer’s source files. What are source files? Source files are the computer files used to produce the finished product. For example, a source file for a printed brochure would include the layouts, graphics, photos, fonts and more in editable and press-ready format.

Source files are your graphic designer’s means and methods for producing the finished product. Which often contains proprietary ways of completing projects. Think of it this way… when you hire a handyman to fix a hole in your roof, you’re aren’t also buying his hammer, saw, tools, sketches/blueprints, work truck and ladder. It’s the same idea with computer source files.

Most clients simply want the printed pieces as the final deliverable and have no use for the computer files used to create those pieces. But, if source files are required, they fall under issues related to rights transferred and full-rights to the materials developed. Source files are included as part of the final deliverables when full-rights to the work are purchased.