Who Owns Your Freelance Copyright? Not You

If you’re a freelance writer, graphic designer, or even a web designer, you don’t own the work you just did for a client.

As a ghost blogger and author, I have to keep different pieces of copyright information straight, and understand what I’m selling or giving away when I write something for a client or for me. As a published writer, I learned very early on about the different forms of copyright for the pieces I wrote. As a ghost writer, I also learned I don’t own a single character of what I write for a client.

Hubbard & Cravens in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis, IN

Coffee shops are filled with freelancers and entre-commuters. That's @JasonFalls in the black shirt. (No, the one on the left.)

This is often a point of contention between freelancers and small businesses, and their clients, when a relationship goes south. Graphic designers demand the return of their illustrations, web designers lock owners out of their website, and writers, well, fire off very well-written angry letters “impetrating the former habitué to refrain from using their discourse” (demanding the former client quit using their words — hey, we’re word nerds. What do you expect?).

The problem is, the creator of the work no longer has the rights to the work. If the client has paid you, then they own it, not you. You can’t even ask for it.

That’s because you just performed a work-for-hire service. Basically, that means you acted as an employee of the client, and performed a job function, namely, creating a logo, writing a blog post, or building a website.

If you had been hired as a full-time employee of the client’s and done that work, your employer would own all rights to your work, and could do anything they wanted with it — reproduce it, sell it, stamp it on scented soaps, whatever.

Work-for-hire works the same way: you were hired to perform a piece of work, just like an employee. And when you’re done, that means the client owns that piece, and can do anything they want with it, which means you can’t ask for it back when you and the client are pissed at each other.

Of Course, The Client Has To Pay You First

In our ghost blogging work, we also include a clause in our contract that the client does not own the work we create until they have paid us in full. This allows us to withhold future work until we’re paid, although we have never tried to reclaim work when clients slow pay.

And that’s the one problem for creative freelancers. It’s hard to reclaim creative work when a client hasn’t paid. Web designers have a little more leverage, especially if they also have access to the client’s server.

Website by Unpaid Web Designer

So What Can You Do?

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do when it comes to relinquishing your ownership. That’s one of those things you need to resign yourself to if you’re going to lead the life of a freelancer (although the Professional Artists League believes that work-for-hire is unethical and evil).

However, it also means you need to follow a few basic practices if you want to protect yourself in the future:

  • Don’t flesh out your own ideas or use your own creations in a client’s work. If you’re developing a new process or idea, or you have a new animated character, don’t put it in a client’s project. They own that idea from then on, and you can actually be sued for stealing your own idea later on.
  • If the client provides you with equipment, like a new computer, never work on your own stuff while using their equipment. The argument can be made that since you created something with their property, they own it. And while you could probably argue against it, chances are you don’t have the money to test that theory in court.
  • Whenever possible, try to include a revenue-sharing agreement in your contract. While this is harder when you’re doing small-time projects, if you’re a big-shot consultant, and you’re only being paid a small amount to come up with some huge revenue-generating ideas, ask to share some of the profits. It won’t always work, but it’s always worth asking. Who knows, you may get lucky and come up with a process that makes the client millions.

Do you have any work-for-hire suggestions for new freelancers? Any success stories or horror stories about a work-for-hire project? Let us hear from you in the comments.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Kenan – Thank you for debunking a well propagated myth. Kenan Farrell is the KLF in KLFLegal – an entertainment and intellectual property law office located in Indianapolis.

    2. Josh Humble says:

      Excellent article and subject, Erik, and thanks for the great advice. It’s critical we understand artist / client rights, and the legal nuances of contracts (yes, we need to use them, too), to avoid nightmarish scenarios in future – as well as bad publicity. I especially like the precaution of not using our own creations in a client’s work.

    3. In a freelance situation, a work will be considered a work made for hire ONLY if the parties expressly agree in a written signed document. So long as they’re careful about what they sign, the freelancer will own the copyright. If the client wants a “work for hire” provision included, they should be paying more.

    4. Mike Soper says:

      Hey Eric,

      Since I have more experience on the art side, I know that it is the ARTIST that owns the right to their original artwork.
      You should check out: http://www.www.graphicartistsguild.org.

      According to the Graphic Artist’s Guild: Ownership of Artwork: Standard industry practice: the artist owns the original artwork even if rights of reproduction are transferred. Artist, can, on the other hand, sell the original and still keep rights of reproduction. The copyright law clearly states that the copyright is separate and distinct from the material work in which it is embodied.

      When I have contracted illustrators, the artwork is purchased by it’s usage. However, you (the client) can buy the original artwork from the artist.

      Mike Soper


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