Who Owns the Project Files?

Happy New Year!

Q: Thanks! Hey, I have a question about design.

Give me a second! Let me finish my Diet Coke. I need the caffeine because was up late last night (New Year's Eve) holding Mrs. Sigmadog’s hair while she puked margaritas.

Aaaah! Sweet aspartame! Okay. That’s better. What was your question?

Q: Who owns the files on a project?

Do you mean the specific documents I create (whether in InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Painter, Acrobat, by hand using traditional media or any of the documents created with my various 3D, character, video editing, animation, sound, or other software applications)?

Q: Yep. Those files. Who owns them?

I'm not a lawyer, so this is just me talking, but it seems the answer is pretty straightforward: I do. All the files I create are mine, and I have total rights over their use, transfer and modification.

Q: But didn’t the client pay you for the files? Why can’t they use them whenever and however they want?

Your premise is incorrect. My clients don't pay me for files. They come to me for a service. They aren't paying for the files I supply to the printing company. They are paying for my expertise and service to achieve the finished product provided by the printing company.

Q: I don’t understand.

An analogy: When eating dinner at a fancy restaurant, do you claim ownership of the plates, knives, forks, spoons and glasses? Do you own the tablecloth upon which the food sits? Can you claim ownership of the oven or stove used to transform the raw ingredients into a delicious meal? Of course not. The idea is preposterous. Likewise, you (as the client) do not own the tools I use to create the product you are ultimately buying, a printed publication, package, or ad, for instance.

Q: Tools? The tools you use are the software programs to build the files, not the files themselves! The files you create aren’t tools, you Idiot!

Another analogy - I love the aroma of freshly baked analogies: A customer contracts a cabinet maker to build a custom desk that is unique to the customer's very particular needs. As part of the process of building the desk, the cabinet maker builds several unique jigs that help him cut, shape and assemble this very unique and one-of-a-kind desk. In the end he delivers a beautiful finished desk to the customer. He doesn't let the customer have the jigs because 1) the customer doesn't need them, but more importantly because 2) the customer didn't buy the jigs, he bought a finished desk.

My files and documents are "jigs" that help me and the printing company build the customer's "desk". In other words, they are tools I use to achieve the client’s end product.

Q: I get it, but I’m still a bit skeptical. What’s to stop the client from simply having the printing company make any necessary changes and/or updates to your file and printing from that modified file?

I eliminate all doubts of interpretation by asking the client to agree with my interpretation of this matter because by signing each proof, the client agrees to the following (which is included on the proof form):

Unless otherwise stated (via contract or letter of agreement), all layout files, original art, photography and proofs created by SIGMA remain property of SIGMA. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

No file is ever submitted for printing without a client approval on the proof agreeing to these terms.

Q: Damn! You're quite the hard ass.

Yes. Yes I am. Now if you'll excuse me, Mrs. Sigmadog is heading for the toilet again.