WadeInCreativity Book Design Blog

You Should Own What You Pay For 

For many years now, I have heard of and witnessed many incidents of copyright or "file ownership" disputes between designers and their clients. This has been distressing for me, because I realized that there are a huge number of people being ripped off by their design resources.

Now, before the design community forms a lynch mob, I need to remind readers that I am a designer. So any issues that some designers would say affects their potential income could affect my livelihood as well.

To my understanding of copyright law, actual works of art (cartoons, paintings, etc.) are automatically copyrighted upon their creation. That copyright is not transferred to someone who purchases the original work of art, unless the artist expressly signs copyright over (which I do not recommend the artist do).

This, however, does not apply the same way to works of graphic design. As an employee of a company, all graphic design works are the property of the company, not the designer. This is often referred to as a work for hire arrangement. The question is, what is the arrangement if the designer is a freelancer or a firm hired by the company? I think it most depends on what is in the contract.

There are many conditions that may be put into a contract and anything agreed to by both parties is binding.

Now, let's talk about what is ethical. As an example, a person hires a designer to create a logo for their company. Once the logo is complete, who owns the artwork? I say the client does. Many may argue points against that, but I believe that is what is ethical. The client hired someone to execute a specific visual task, it was not an original work of art created independently. Design is a service, with the end product belonging to the client.

If there are items in the contract that do not grant ownership to the client, the client needs to get those taken out before signing the contract.

As designers, what do we gain by holding files or the copyright hostage? A few extra hundred or thousand dollars? By holding onto the design files are we guaranteeing that the client will use our services again? Actually, that is forcing the client to come back. In my opinion, that practice does very little for the work relationship. It creates stress and animosity, which will filter out and affect other work relationships. It also creates a bad reputation. Some of the best clients come from word of mouth recommendations. How much do we think clients will recommend us if we do not grant ownership of project files and/or copyright?

For me, it is much easier to provide all final files including live working or layered files to the client as soon as I am paid for all services rendered. Am I risking that the client will decide to not use my services again and provide the files to another designer? Absolutely. But I believe that if my clients have a great experience with me, they will come back. If they would like to try someone else, they are welcome to. But I would hope they come back to me for my level of customer service, which is a huge part of the design process. I also believe that the practice of providing files upon job completion is a gesture of trust and goodwill that will ensure future recommendations i.e., more clients and income.

Pertaining specifically to book design, self-publishing authors should own the rights and files for their book layout and cover design. That should be part of the contract between the author and designer/publishing service. Recently I had an enlightening talk with Mr. Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing (http://www.bookpublisherscompared.com/). He told me that it was not uncommon for authors to pay for their book design twice once for the design work, and again to buy the electronic files for the layout and cover. WHAT?!? Mr. Levine didn't agree with that practice, and neither do I. To me, that is extortion. It takes nothing to add a little into the quote to cover time, materials, and shipping to get the client's files (which they already paid for) to them.

Bottom line: if you are an author, make sure that you understand the contract you are signing. Ideally, the contract should include a clause granting you copyright and ownership of your design files. If it doesn't, negotiate to get it changed or seek out another resource.

If anyone has any questions, feel free to contact me. Best of luck in your publishing quest!
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