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A client recently emailed me asking for the source files from a project I did for them two years ago. I don't have the source files since it was such a long time ago and the client said it was very unprofessional and strange to not keep the source files for all the projects I do.

Is there a customary length of time that you should be expected to keep source files? Should you keep all your source files for projects and never get rid of them?

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    ... True story: a client of ten years earlier contacted our office because his laptop was stolen and he lost all of his research. (... yeah I know. We didn't have the heart to tell'im to have made backups...) But we did have all of his original files from a decade earlier. – usr2564301 Mar 4 '18 at 23:40
  • I just keep my archives on a pretty large backup NAS.. but I guess it all comes back to what kinda clients you work with.. – Joax Mar 5 '18 at 10:04
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    @Mawg storing it is only one part... – WELZ Mar 5 '18 at 13:06
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    I'm not sure if this has been asked - and it surprises me: What's in the contract? – WernerCD Mar 5 '18 at 13:29
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    @Mawg See also this question on the Freelancing SE: What's a fair price to charge a client for backups that only I have? – A C Mar 7 '18 at 2:13
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My business is not a backup service for any client.

All clients should be backing up the files they've received on their own. It's not my responsibility to be an indefinite backup service for any client, ever.

Clients are not paying a regular fee to maintain equipment, upgrade hard drives, purchase additional hard drives as needed, maintaining software, etc. Therefore clients are NOT compensating me for backing up their files. Clients have no claims to any of my company's backups. I maintain backups for my business just as they should be doing for their business. If I were running a backup service, there would be a monthly subscription fee and contracts in place for such a service. To expect my business to retain old items your business may need in the future is ludicrous.

Let me be clear... I have backups for my business since, well, prior to even its inception. I think I have files more than 30-35 years old. Chances are very high that should I need a file from 10-20-30 years ago I have it. Whether or not I can open it (i.e. Pagemaker, Freehand, Quark, Dimensions, etc) may be another matter, but I'll probably have the files.

The difference here is what the client may be requesting...

Essentially my backups are there to support my customer relations and ease my own workflow, but my backups are never free storage for clients to retrieve files at a later date merely because the client asks for them.

It's somewhat unprofessional for a client to be asking for "source files" without compensating you for those files. Here, source files always cost money. It's also a bit "unprofessional" for your client to not be backing up their own files and relying on some unrelated business to maintain their important digital content.

It's not unprofessional for you to fail to have a 2 year old backup of their files if they haven't been a client in two years. In fact, it's often normal to not have files for older clients. And even if you do have them, you are not obligated to provide them. It's your backup, not theirs.


My backup procedures....

There are no real rules regarding this. In general, I keep files as long as I'm still working with a client or until it becomes inconvenient to maintain them.

I maintain a triple redundant current backup at all times which encompasses all relatively active clients in addition to all client branding, custom illustration, high resolution images, etc.

The triple redundancy and incremental backup system allows me to remove a file or several files from my primary working directory with the knowledge that the file I've removed is already backed up in at least 2 other locations. This tends to keep my primary working directory at a reasonable size. I'll often remove .zip archives or client supplied files, or previous, unapproved/rejected, iterations of a project - basically the superfluous stuff that wouldn't be needed in the future anyway. Again, I remove these files but I know they also exist in a minimum of 2 other locations. So I'm really only pruning the SOURCE directory, not the backups. Individual project directories here can easily surpass 10s or 100s of GB at times. So some consideration to overall backup size is kind of imperative. Anything I can do to ensure important files are kept while reducing the total amount of MB/GB/TB needed for the backup is a good thing. If all I had were 50-100MB web site HTML/PHP/CSS files and web images, then I'd probably keep absolutely everything.

I tend to rebuild my backups entirely every 4-6 years. What I do is disconnect one of the backup RAIDs and store it (safe deposit box). Reformat the other backup RAID, add a new backup RAID and backup everything starting fresh from that date. With this method nothing is actual ever disposed of, but older files are no longer part of a redundant backup. If the only location of a particular clients file(s) is on that single archived hard drive in the safe deposit box, and that RAID happens to fail, well, I've lost those project files. So any projects older than 4-6 years may or may not have had their files removed, lost, or destroyed due to corruption.

Since implementing all of this roughly 15 years ago I've not lost a single file. Not one. Sure, it may take me the better part of a week to restore things from various backup RAIDs, but the important thing is I still have everything.


Charge if you are going to dig for it.....

The hard reality is anything more than 3/6 months or possibly 1/2 years old should be considered gone by the client, even if I do happen to still have the files. I would certainly charge an hourly fee to check to see if I still have their files and the time it takes to retrieve anything I may have, all associated with a minimum fee. That in addition to any delivery fee for the files. Clients who fail to maintain their own backups are liable for the expenses associated with losing their files.

Unless a client is paying me for storage, I'm not responsible for backing anything up for them. I'll stress again, that if the client wants to hire me to update to an old project, I have no issue diving into my backups to retrieve the old project (saving the client money possibly). I really only have issue with using my backup merely to be a source for file delivery because some other business failed to maintain their own backup.


The sneaky clients......

Also be aware... some haphazard or perhaps nefarious or unethical clients can use time passage as a method of getting around your standard practices. It's not always malicious in nature, but it can be. Client knows full well that you charge a fee for project files. They don't want to pay that fee when you complete the project initially. No problem. You deliver what the contract states you are to deliver, client pays you and everyone moves on happy.

Some time later, usually a year or more, the client may return asking for project files as if "they've lost them" or "they were mistakenly destroyed" pretending like they were delivered initially as part of the project. This is done in the hopes you may fail to remember specifics. Be cautious of this practice. Like I posted its not always malicious in nature, sometimes clients honestly forget you charge for project files. However, it can also be very intentional and thought out to try and circumvent payment while getting the files. I've encountered both over the years.


Tl;dr:

My backups are for my business, They are mine. My backups are not for the clients business and the client has no "right" to my backups without compensation. Clients are entirely 100% responsible for their own backups.

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    If you DO save them.... charge them for a recovery/locating fee. – WELZ Mar 5 '18 at 1:25
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    If you don't back it up, and the client loses it, bang goes your chance of getting a commission to tweak the existing stuff in future. How much effort / disk space are we talking about anyway? – Mawg Mar 5 '18 at 12:35
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    @Mawg that will depend on the size of the project. Video projects take a humongous amount of space, for example. Print projects can take quite a lot as well. Add that to every client you have... Besides you can't live with the off chance that all clients will come back after 10 years to tweak something, might as well start a new project from scratch. – Luciano Mar 5 '18 at 14:52
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    Reread what I wrote... every 4-6 years a new backup.. but the old backup is still kept its merely no longer redundant. I don't consciously remove client files... I merely devalue them more and more as time passes. If I haven't heard from a client in 4 years, chances of them returning to "tweak" something are slim to none. And some projects can EASILY reach the 100s of GB sizes, so file sizes are not irrelevant. If all you have are 50MB web site files.. then fine keep them forever. But if you have a 3TB backup that grows by hundreds of GB every year.... one has to be more realistic. – Scott Mar 5 '18 at 17:40
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    Also, anything more than 4-6 years old could use a complete redesign not merely a "tweak". Design aesthetics change with time. Most things 5 years old will LOOK 5 years old today. So there's more value in redesign than merely "tweaking" -- not to mention the up-sale opportunity if an absent client is returning to you for "backup files". I run a design business not a "friendly neighborhood free backup" service. – Scott Mar 5 '18 at 17:41
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I've been both the one with the backups and the one that needed a backup. In general, unless it is hard for you to keep their files (for example terabytes of video or contracts prohibit it), you should keep it.

There are times when a file is accidentally deleted or corrupted, the change is synced to dropbox etc, and you don't notice for 6 months that the source file is gone.

The only solution to this sort of scenario is to have multiple backups of everything all the time, stacks of old hard drives basically that are never touched after the backup is made and this is not a normal backup strategy.

So, in the end you should keep backups for three reasons:

  1. In a case like this you can help your client, which makes you look more professional
  2. The work you did is your work, you should retain proof you did it at the very least for your own records for your own reference
  3. Finally, if a client comes back in 10 years and asks for variations of the logo, what are the chances they have your original source files in a format you like? (I've had to have designers recreate source svgs for logos multiple times because client's lost the files we sent them years before.)

Your job is not to provide a backup service, but your job is to provide good customer service.

If doing X makes you provide better service to clients and make you look better, then do X. There are very few exceptions.

Little things like this are the difference between a professional that clients will want to work with again and would refer business to vs a random faceless contractor whose name clients forget as soon as the project is delivered.

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    Agree with the message, disagree with the suggested methods... A NAS with a proper redundant RAID array should be more than enough.. Stacks of old hard drives aren't a great idea. This still doesn't cover you in the event of serious disaster mind, think fire, flood etc.. – Trotski94 Mar 5 '18 at 13:20
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    If your client's NAS is active storage, they still have the chance of data corruption or deletion either by themselves or someone else at their theoretical company. I wasn't suggesting using a stack of harddrives, but that is the only storage method a client could use that would nearly guarantee a 10 year old file exists forever. Which is why it is reasonable for a client to ask for a source file years later. – Aaron Harun Mar 5 '18 at 15:03
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    @JamesTrotter A NAS is not enough, you also need offline backups and off site backups. AND you need to test your backup procedure once in a while. SO there may in fact be reasons why you can not resolve the backup even if you have one for example the file being so old that your applications nolonger open them (this is a seirous problem in 3D graphics, and going forward with subscription models). – joojaa Mar 6 '18 at 8:44
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    @AaronHarun If it's not reasonable for the client to keep the file for 10 years (and that seems to be what you're saying, though maybe I'm misunderstanding the comment exchange), why is it reasonable for them to expect you to keep it for 10 years? – Anthony Grist Mar 6 '18 at 14:36
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    @AnthonyGrist My point is that there are legitimate reasons why a client might lose the source file even if they do their best to create backups. Backups are not infallible and even a fairly advanced backup method can fail. – Aaron Harun Mar 6 '18 at 15:52
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I keep design, code, etc files indefinitely. It's inexpensive, and my repeat clients appreciate it - not that they're aware of it directly, but when they do come back I don't have to re-do previous work from scratch.

However, for me, there's a more important reason. While I've never been confronted with legal issues or liability, having records and files for everything I've done provides me with a little protection should someone come asking. Whether it's for IP protection (ie, inventions, trade secrets, etc), or even the unlikely possibility of a lawsuit suggesting liability for damages, I can show 1) what I did, 2) when I did it, 3) who contracted me to do the work, and 4) what the contract was.

It doesn't take much effort or time, but it does take some care. One of the biggest issues is finding old software, so when I complete a project I make sure that all the design software is also backed up, along with license information and any associated libraries/files/data necessary to rebuild the environment should the need arise. I've rarely had to pull this kind of thing out - usually by the time the software and files become incompatible with the latest versions, an entirely new version is warranted. However I've taken on old projects that were poorly maintained by others enough times to know the value of being able to rebuild an outdated environment.

However, I do charge as needed. If they're asking for files they have already purchased, and it's recent enough that it takes little effort I don't charge anything. But if they're asking for something several years old and I have to go through old media, or if they're asking for additional materials they didn't originally purchase, I'll charge them according to our original agreement, or have a discussion with them about their needs. If this is incidental to a new project they want me to do then I'll incorporate those costs into the new project. This isn't a free service, it's mostly incidental to meeting my own needs.

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The short answer:

You should keep the files as long as is specified in the contract.

I've worked with clients who wanted everything and have me delete all raw material and I've worked with clients where we kept a backup for a period of time. But always: as specified in the contract, that way you can't go wrong.

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Speaking from the client side, I would expect the designer to keep my files until the project is finished plus a reasonable time after during which I might ask for changes or additions. Six to twelve months would be such a time. If I mail them two weeks after the project is done and say "could I make one more X just like the ones you did?" and they answered they don't have the source files anymore, I would be surprised.

Your client is right that the more professional the longer I would expect to be able to do that. I would certainly be happy if you can still fulfill my request after two years. I would not be entirely sure if you can, but it would be a positive sign.

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Good question and i guess it depends, but generally you as a service provider should always anticipate this situation and be prepared to answer to something like this. Either charge for backup from day one or provide sufficient backup as long as the client provides new work + a number of years of 'complimentary' backup.

  1. I always and repeatedly encourage all my clients to keep their own copy of my deliverables. Be that editable files or just straight PDF exports (when editables are not delivered).
  2. I will never backup files that were circulated and not used. So if a client sends in 500 pictures and we only use 10 in the brochure, i will not save the other 490 pictures when the work is delivered and paid. It is only my actual deliverables that i am backing up. I will also remove all draft PPTs, DOCs, etc we used to complete the job when all the content has been pulled from these.
  3. For larger clients with ongoing work spread over many years, i actually guarantee 3 to 5 years of backup for everything delivered, included in my fees. This is something we write down in the contract and i will have two identical copies of every job on two separate hdd drives, and in some cases even a third cloud backup. The clients know they are paying for this. Some clients actually require me to upload every deliverable to their internal ftp with no exception, but that is also something they are paying for.
  4. For smaller or one-off clients, i will also back up their files indefinitely, but generally tend to clean these up gradually after 3-4-5 years if no other contact has been made for additional work or there is no contract or clause forcing me to keep the files forever.
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Well, since I'm quite proud of most the work I do for a client, I do NOT keep those files for them, but for my self.

While is useful to keep them saved given that an old client could ask for changes after months of completed the project.

I don't see any reason to DELETE the files, unless you really hated that project and you don't want to know anything about it anymore, but even in those cases, I like to keep those files as an story of my work, I can always go back to those files and see how much I have grown as designer.

Even my own personal designs are always stored. And data storage is WAY too cheap now, so there is no excuse to delete them.

these are my personal designs, no my customers, but works the same

  • Do you have clients that non-verbally expected you to have backups? Do they count on that fact? – usr2564301 Mar 6 '18 at 2:01
  • this is fine as long as your files are small; as noted above, when you have files which reach the terabyte stratosphere, then storage becomes less cheap. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 7 '18 at 13:40
  • @LaurenIpsum sure, but I own a 4TB for my design storage and 2TB for exclusive client work, is no that expensive, is easier to get a new 1TB and add it to the current RAID than re-do a design project. – David Escalante Mar 8 '18 at 2:09
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The Facts

Without a contract or agreement, there's certainly no obligation to keep backups of the work you've done for your clients in the past, and I don't think most people would expect you to either. In fact, I doubt even the client in your story genuinely expected you to either (Data gets lost; people lash out.) But it's definitely good practice, if not for their sake, then for your own.


Unsolicited Advice

If you're a struggling design student, don't stress about it. If you own or run a successful business, or something of that nature; it's within your interests to invest in a more comprehensive storage solution. For sure. That's not to say you need it. You want it.

It's not really a situation where x is right and y is wrong. It's more like..

  • How professional are you?
  • How proud are you of your work?
  • How attached, or emotionally invested are you?
  • How concerned are you with the public perception of your self/business/work/art/service/whatever?
  • Are you thoughtful?
  • Do you care?
  • Are you solely interested in you own personal, financial gain?
  • Are you a bare minimum, or extra mile kinda guy?

Anecdotal Evidence

A personal experience:
Recently, I contacted an independent recording studio about a couple of records that were made between 2007 and 2010 (or thereabouts) by a friend of mine and his band. No, you've probably never heard of them. The engineer didn't even seem to know who I was talking about. Which is fine; I'd never heard of him, or his studio before either.

What did I expect?
I expected it to stay that way; they would say no, or ignore me altogether, not long before sliding back into obscurity. I'd forget their name, and I'd forget their existence, forever...

What actually happened?
A young, enthusiastic employee (intern? helper.. person?) contacted me early the next day; invited me to come around and collect three dual layer DVDs containing all the raw (& mixed) audio stems, and ProTools project files, etc. recorded over multiple sessions. I was invited to stay for a beer at the end of the day, and to come visit the studio during the week. And now I associate them with this great, positive experience. I'll never forget them. I recommend them all the time.

TL;DR:
Did I expect there to be backups? No.
Would I've been mad if there were none? No.
Would I've be reasonable if I did? Not really.
Would I've been disappointed? A little.
Was I thrilled to find there were backups? Yes.

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