You want my intellectual propertyWhy you shouldn’t give away source design files

We are often asked for advice on giving away source design files to clients. Handing over source design files to clients is usually an issue between clients and designers because of the confusion over copyright licensing and intellectual property. We’ve had personal experience of this in our days as Mackay Branson design.

Copyright and IP

The creator of a design, artwork or written content owns the copyright and intellectual property behind that work. They can choose to assign copyright and IP to a third party as part of fees paid. It is a complex area that needs some research to fully understand

In Australia the common practice is to assign design usage copyright on final payment of fees. This is usually, but not always, complete usage rights. The client can use that design in what ever way they want. However it is generally understood that the usage is according to the briefing given to the designer. If the client has not been specific in their briefing they are leaving themselves open to dispute

Illustration included in a design is one instance where copyright needs clarification. It’s common practice in Australia for illustrators to only give copyright (licence) for a specific use. For example an illustrator who creates a character for a series of books designed by an agency will usually limit the copyright to the books. It would not give the agency or client the right to turn that character into an animated cartoon series.

The assignment of design usage copyright allows (licenses) the client to take the designs (not the illustrations) and have another agency recreate them. The client has the right to develop the designs further with another agency if they wish. However this does not mean you hand over source design files that are part of your intellectual property.

Intellectual property

Intellectual property is a completely different matter.

In part the intellectual property in a design resides in the source files the agency created to produce the designs.

Designers using Indesign, Photoshop and Illustrator (and the equivalents) develop smart ways to build a file. This often leads to efficiencies, guarantees quality and ensures integrity during the production process. The skill to do this varies greatly across design agencies. The more detailed the source design file structure the better they can be and the more valuable they are. It can be equated to the code that makes Microsoft word functional. Do clients ask for that code?

When you buy a Tesla do you expect to get all the IP that went into developing the car?

Clients usually ask for the source design files because they are looking to cut costs by using a cheaper supplier or they have fallen out with the designer. Neither of these is a justification for claiming the source design files without payment to the designer.

Some designers quote a 100% extra payment fee for the source design files. This is in line with the fees charged by an illustrator where the client wants to own the original artwork rather than licensing it for a specific purpose.

Take away

A client can fairly assume the fee they pay a designer will include copyright assignment. Designers’ T&Cs should state that copyright license is assigned on final payment of the fees.

If a client does not specify they want source design files as part of the scope it would be quoted later in the project. If it is not specified in the original brief it is not included in the original estimate and the client has not paid for the source files.

Want more?

Here’s more information on how design creates value:
1 Does a designer have to hand over source files
2 Why designers don’t give up source files
3 Why and what to charge for source design files

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Greg Branson

Design Business Council
Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.
Greg has developed a series of processes and tools to help designers manage their business better along with a series of workshops that show designers how to use these tools.

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