Who actually owns a design?

Who actually owns a design?

You hired a designer to design and print a brochure for your company but now you want to obtain the open file so you can make any small changes in the future. Yes, that file where you (or someone else) can adjust everything. You go back to the designer and get a resounding “no”. You think, ‘But why? I assigned the job and paid for the design, didn’t I?’


Well, it’s not that simple. The law simply states that the designer owns the copyright on the design and therefore automatically and thus the (open) files. There’s one exception, and that’s when the designer is employed full-time by your company. So not as a freelancer, but as an employee. Then the designs remain the property of the company. Also unfortunate for the designer because it’s her creativity that has been used and she’s not allowed to do anything with it, except (with permission) present it in her portfolio including the comment ‘created under paid employment’. Fortunately, most companies simply say yes to this, and it’s no problem to show your creativity to the outside world.

But back to the open files… Just because a designer doesn’t give you these files doesn’t mean you can’t get them. Most designers are quite willing to accommodate you but for a price. So, you can “buy” the file. And even then, there are still rules. With a contract, you transfer the rights to the other company. When the designer agrees to sell the rights, it’s up to her to set a price. There are no guidelines regarding determining the price, the designer is free to ask what she feels she’s worth. I know of agencies that charge thousands of euros for the open file of, for example, the logo (the eps/ai files). I used to not give these files and then decided to raise my logo price so that they would include the files. Still doesn’t mean you have the copyright; you have a license to use the logo but are prohibited from making any changes to these files.

Why will you ask?

Well very simple.


“Copyright is the exclusive right to control the reproduction and exploitation of your creative work.”


In other words, when I ‘give’ the open file, everyone can do whatever they want with it, and I have no control over what happens to my designs. And to give it a financial spin, I’ll never earn anything from it again. It may sound silly but that’s how it works. Why do you think there’s so much fuss in the music world about illegal downloads? The artist works hard, puts hours of creativity into it and then they don’t earn anything. Well, you don’t work for nothing, do you? Then why should I?

When can I receive files from the designer?

When you’ve had a logo designed, the designer will send you a series of files for you to update your website and social media channels. With a brochure design, the designer usually arranges the print work as well, but on occasion, you can receive a print-ready PDF so you can arrange the printing yourself. To this question, I usually say ‘no’, the main reason being that by giving away the files I can’t guarantee the quality of the final product. The client often doesn’t understand the various types of paper, let alone which printing techniques are needed for a beautiful result. But at times I’ve consulted the client in what to order and send them the print file. Before sending the files, I ask for the specifications or contact details of the printer so I can deliver a file that is set to the specifications of the desired print work. This way I can at least provide a perfect file knowing that the end result will meet my requirements.


License is another word for right of use. With a license, the client has permission from the designer to use the design. The copyright remains with the designer.

What does this mean?

When you receive a logo from your designer or a series of files to use, this is covered by a license. You’ll receive a license to use these resources so that you can promote your company. So, you may use them but not modify them or give them to another designer who will then modify them. The designs remain the property of the designer. This permission is often so self-evident for both parties that it’s not even discussed.

In general there are three rules to remember regarding the produced files:
• The right to display the work.
• Reproducing the work (e.g., print work).
• Making changes.

You won’t hear from me about the first one, as every designer wants their client to show off her work – so this falls under the license. Point 2 is a difficult one as these days we hardly earn anything from print work anymore, still, I want to be the one who arranges it. Why? So, I can guarantee the quality. Because the quality of the print work reflects on me. Hence my advice is to leave that with me so I can ensure the quality of the desired product.

And point 3? No never. Well never? Occasionally I’ve made changes to an existing file that wasn’t mine. It depends on the origin of the file. In most cases, it’s a file sent by a client of a concept design they made that needs to be finalised. And when it’s one of my designs? Then no, changes cannot be made as this means you are making changes to the open files. So even when you as a client hand over open files of your current logo to your new designer, do know they are allowed to use them but not modify them in any way without consulting the original designer.

To share or not to share open files

Unfortunately, many people do not understand how this works and it’s often quite hard to communicate with a company that wants the open files. How do you deal with that? Well, each time I get this request I take a few things into consideration. Who is the client, what is our relationship, and how did this come about? And what agreements have been made regarding the assignment?

You’ll find that each case will be handled differently. But remember that when you ask your designer for an open file, you take something away from her. Think back to your favourite artist with that beautiful song. Designers fall into the same category as musicians and so in effect, you ‘steal’ from us. After all, I don’t come to your company and ask for things without having to pay for them, do I?


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