Copyright is something that’s always kind of swimming around in the background for freelance creatives, but it can be a slippery blighter and difficult to pin down. One thing that often gives people pause when it comes to contracts for work is who should ultimately own the copyright over the finished article. The good news is that it’s usually pretty straightforward to decide how to resolve the conundrum once you understand the basic principle of how copyright works.

The default position of copyright on any given piece of work – whether images, graphics, writing, music, etc. etc. – is that it remains with the creator unless:

(a) the work was produced by an employee for their employer, in which case the copyright is owned by the employer, or

(b) the copyright is explicitly signed over to someone else, e.g. the client who commissioned it.

All clear so far. The questions start when you come across a client who objects to you retaining copyright over the work you produce for them. At this point, if you’ve never come across this issue before, you might start wondering what the practical implications are of signing over the copyright.

Perhaps the biggest concern is whether you won’t be able to claim authorship or use that work in your portfolio if you no longer hold the copyright. Well, the good news is that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be perfectly free to use the commissioned work for your own promotion – most clients will be chuffed that you’re so pleased with the work you did for them and see it as free advertising for themselves – as long as you agree with the client in writing before you sign it over.

If the client says they absolutely have to own the copyright and won’t allow you to use your work for your portfolio, then consider why that is and whether or not it’s reasonable. Perhaps the work is sensitive in some way and it’s important the client maintains control over where and how it’s distributed. Or perhaps they’re just super precious about the work they commission and pay for. It’s really up to you to decide whether it’s more important that you keep the rights to your work or get paid for the job. After all, giving up the copyright to the final product does not affect your copyright over all the revisions and drafts you created before then, and the copyright to that final product should only be given up on receipt of full payment in any case.

In conclusion, copyright and who holds it is something that is down to you and the client to decide: some clients see it as part of what they’re paying for when they commission the job, so that they can use the product or change it as they please. Others are happy for the creator to keep the copyright. Neither way is inherently right or wrong as long as everyone knows what has been agreed and what they have the right to do with the product.

(All copyright laws in the UK are governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which you can consult here.)

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Published on 25 May 2016