by Christina Wilkinson

With the exception of a logo design files, there’s nothing as frightening as a client wanting the native files of brochures, publications, business cards, ads, etc. And if you’ve been designing for any amount of time, you’ve probably had a client request to be given HIS native files because afterall, he paid you to create them didn’t he?

And that’s the key word: create. He didn’t pay you to own the file, he paid you to create it so he could have it printed. It’s kind of like buying a home. Have you ever heard of anyone stating that they own the architectural blueprints to a home they’ve purchased? Probably not unless they paid lots and lots of money to an architect to have a home designed and built solely for them, like celebrities normally do. 

Now a client is probably asking you, what’s the big deal if they get the native files? But if they have to ask, then why would they want them in the first place?! 

Well they certainly do know what the advantages are. They want the native files because it allows them to take the file and do whatever they want to with it, including reformatting for other projects and they may even give it to a family member, work on it themselves or even give it to another designer. But little do most designers or clients know that you shouldn’t be giving native files away and here are two good reasons why not:

1. Those fonts you use to design projects for a client cannot be transferred so easily. As a designer, we are legally allowed to send them along as part of your files to print at a print company but that’s pretty much it. The fonts that come with our computers are not legally ours to freely share with others. Some fonts do allow transfer. Just be sure to know which fonts they are. Fortunately for most of us, the fonts we have on our computers are most likely the same as the next person. But to keep yourself out of trouble, read your font licensing agreements before just giving a font away with a project.

2. Did you purchase a catalog of, say for instance, one of those outrageous catalogs that spans 20+ DVDs? Well those photos aren’t yours to sell or give away. It’s like purchasing music or a movie. Just because you own it on a DVD or CD, you don’t have the rights to just do with it as you please. The ‘royalty-free’ term is that you as the designer have already paid the royalties for the photos so you’re free to use them within the legal guidelines given. So you can’t just turn these photos over to a client because they aren’t the clients property.

Now if your client purchases photos from a stock photo house for you to use, the client has the rights to use the photo they purchased on anything they want. Unfortunately you as a designer are not legally allowed to use that client’s photo freely on other client’s projects. But if you as the designer purchased the photo, the same rules apply. You purchased the photo(s), so they’re yours and not the clients. So if you plan on using photos for other projects, it’s best to just include photography in general as part of your design so that you have access to the photos again.

On the other hand, giving away native files can be strategic in working with some clients. You have to pick and choose your battles. Say for instance you’ve been working with a client for a while and you aren’t able to complete a project. So the client retains another designer to meet the deadline while you’re on vacation. So if you’re passing files off to another designer to keep a client happy, be sure to strip back what you send to the other designer. A good example is, don’t send a background that is unflattened, create outlines on any Illustrator files that are included and well, you get the idea. 

Now as with any creative project, derivative rights ALWAYS legally belong to the original designer unless the designer has given those derivative rights up in writing. Having derivative rights gives an artist legal first rights of refusal to make changes to their own work. So if you’ve modified another designer’s logo design in any way, they can sue you and the client for changing their artwork. 

Designers through the ages have always kept derivative rights in order to protect the work they’ve designed, otherwise they wouldn’t legally be able to say they created it. Even if a designer signs the rights to a design over to a client, included in paperwork, a designer must include that they are in-fact giving up their derivative rights. But this is very rarely done for good reason. Would you as a designer want another designer to claim your work as their’s? The moment you sign away your derivative rights, you’re legally allowing that to happen and it means you cannot legally show that artwork as yours any more. 

If someone created artwork or a project as ‘work for hire’ then the company that the work was done for owns all rights without requiring any paperwork, including derivative rights. So if you want to put any of your ‘work for hire’ projects in your portfolio, make sure your employer is allowing you to legally do this. Otherwise someone may think that you said you created something but really had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately this happens all too much and clients should be researching any prospective designer’s portfolio by asking questions about how, why and where a project was completed.

The bottom line is that the client should always get everything in writing, and as designers, we owe it to our clients to educate them about native files and derivative rights. So designers should stop just handing files over freely and protect their work.