Who owns the digital files for your job?

October 1, 2012 Posted by workingdesign in Clients

You’ve had your designers develop all of your new materials: logo, website, print materials and other collateral. Now you want the electronic files so you can use them to do work in house. Who owns them?

At Working Design we’re clear about that. You do. They wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t paid us to make them.

It’s the same when we develop your taglines and slogans or help write your key messages. They are yours to use because that’s what you hired us to do.

Traditional copyright says that all art is owned by the creator, even if it is specifically commissioned. And there’s certainly a strong argument to be made if artists have produced an original piece of work – and allowed your organization to use it – that they should retain ownership. The terms of usage should be agreed to in a contract.

However, at Working Design we regularly transfer our design files to our clients for your further use. We charge a transfer fee to cover the time it takes us to dearchive and send the files if they weren’t requested as part of the original job.

If you request or receive electronic files from us or another designer there a few things you need to keep in mind:

  • You’ll need software in order to work with the files. We use Adobe InDesign as our Macintosh pagemaking software, and Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop for logos and images. Most Adobe files will also work in a PC environment.
  • We can only provide you with the files we developed. We cannot give you fonts because they are under copyright. If you don’t have the fonts used in the job, you’ll need to buy them
  • If the files contain stock images there may be time limitations or terms of usage for their continued reproduction
  • Design manipulated by inexperienced hands might not look like it was supposed to. That’s a risk everyone takes. (You can dress your children properly for school in the morning but that’s no guarantee they’ll come home clean and tidy!)

If you’re concerned about that there’s at least two things you can do:

  1. retain the designers as consultants to review materials and offer feedback and develop new materials as needed
  2. have the designers develop a Usage Guide (or Guides) for the various materials. This is a good idea even if you don’t plan on working with the files inhouse. Many organizations supply Usage Guides to third parties to instruct them in the proper use of logos and related materials in order to maintain brand identity and consistency

Digital technology has accelerated this discussion in recent years. Time was when there was only one set of original negatives for jobs such as photography or publications. They could only be housed in one place. But digital files are shared and reproduced easily. Further, the skills needed to work with them have become widespread.

There are many grey areas in this discussion, and different professionals have adopted various approaches. We’ll leave that for another conversation. Enough to say that when you work with us, you own the work you paid for.