In the past, I made a bad assumption; I assumed when a project was completed I as the creator, owned what I made. I’ve observed other creatives make this assumption as well, and if it’s not clearly and explicitly written down in a client agreement, then the actual ownership of your creative work may get a little confusing.

There are two sides to the coin: there is the client side and the creative side. *Is the creative able to use the work in the future? *Is the person who paid for the project able to own the rights to the work? *Can be creative sell the work to someone else? *In the case of creating artwork the graphics who has the right to put it on T-shirts apparel and other things?

Its better to be safe

Technically as the creator of the work you have the “Rights to reproduction“, this means as the creator of the work you can reproduce or use some derivative of what you created in the future. There are some cases where this is not always clear.

For example let’s say you are a photographer, and you take photos of a client. In the future, you may want to use those pictures for a flyer, or maybe you want to sell them on a stock photography website. Yes, you as a photographer own the work because you took it with your camera and equipment however your client may not have given you permission to sell something with their likeness.

In an example such as this, you as the photographer should take the photos and if you ever plan to sell them on a stock photography website let your client know about that in writing or have language that is a part of your client agreement that gives you permission to do so.

Who Owns What When a Project is Finished?

When a project is completed and work is delivered this can go one of two ways.

  1. You may transfer 100% of the ownership to the client for them to use on whatever they would like in the future. Perhaps you send the client all of the source files you created so they can change the creative however they fit.
  2. You may finish the work for a client and choose to retain sole ownership. If this is the case, then you can lease or license the use of this particular creative to the client.

An example of this happened recently in the Marvel cinematic universe. When Captain America Civil War was released, they used the character Spiderman. In the past, the rights to use Spiderman were purchased by Sony Pictures, and if Marvel wanted to use Spiderman in a movie they would negotiate and compensate Sony because they’re using something that ultimately Sony has the rights to use.

Knowing this information should change the conversation about how and what you ask clients. Understanding ownership, copyright and licensing points to the fact that people are paying for more and then just some piece of artwork, they’re paying for the rights to use the artwork for an infinite amount of time or a limited amount of time.

In the book industry often pricing depends on a certain number of factors. For example, let’s say you are a graphic artist and somebody approached you about creating a book cover. You are creating something that is going to be a part of a direct sale, which requires certain questions to be asked. *How many books are going to be printed? *Is this hundreds of books is this thousands of books is it an e-book only? *Is this a short run or long run? *Is what you’re creating going to be used for the book cover only or will there be business cards pens T-shirts posters, etc.?

A quick sidebar

These type of particulars is why you may come across companies who are paid tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands for graphics, videos and other things that they produce. Their price does not only reflect the work that was delivered, but it also reflects the level of ownership the client is purchasing. Knowing this puts a whole new perspective on the value, there’s value in providing a solution or creative work but is also value in the client’s level of freedom they have to use that creative work.

The level of use in which the client plans to use the creative work can also lead to a conversation about pricing. The client is not only paying for you to do the creative work but they are also paying for the freedom to use the work. However they see fit.

Make It Legal

There are cases in which you may create a create a particular work and notice that someone will either copy your work or create something that is ironically similar. In those cases how do you know who was the person to first create the work?

If you happen to post the work online, or you have a signed contract with the date attached to it, you have one way to prove you were the first person who create it. There is something called a DMCA which acts as somewhat of a digital copyright because you posted it online in a public forum therefore there is a digital timestamp of when the document existed. However if things were ever to get legal with a copyright ownership dispute whoever filled out an official copyright with the US patent and copyright office may get the upper hand.

This normally involves you specify who the creator of the work is, the author of the work, and the intended use for the work. Finally an actual physical or digital copy of the work should be submitted. This does not mean someone can’t create a similar product. For example, when the mobile video app Periscope was released Meerkat came out right after and later Snapchat in additional all of those are similar live video platforms.

Protect your work by making it official. Placing your work online on your portfolio may not be enough.

Ultimately, what am I saying? As you continue to work with clients as a freelance professional think about copyright and who owns what let that be a part of the conversation when you are working and onboarding a client. Either you will license to work in retaining ownership rights, or you will release rights entirely to the client once they’ve made a full payment. Different businesses didn’t know various levels of ownership but use your discretion and make it a part of your conversation.