Recently, I hired a graphic designer to design a brand, a web site, business cards and several other things.

After the initial design was complete and we launched, we have continued to make changes and tweak things. The designer is expressing concerns that she owns the design and therefore should be included in any changes updates etc.

We decided to open a new division to the company and in doing so we wanted to have this division have its own web presence. In order to do this we took our current site and had our marketing company create a new site, basically just changing the color scheme of the site of our parent company.

The graphic designer is accusing us of stealing her design and says she should have been involved and compensated.

We want to do the right thing, be we cant get a clear picture. We completely felt like the reason we paid so much money for the original design is because we own it. Now we are confused.

  • 3
    What's the contract say?
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 2:43
  • Did you issue a 1099 or report the payment to the government in another way? Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 14:04

3 Answers 3


American copyright law states that if you work for a company (not on a contractor/freelance basis, but as a registered employee of that company), anything you create while working at your job, during your hours, is owned by your employer, be that the company or a specific person in the hierarchy.

Anything you make on your own time, off hours, is owned by you. Unless you give away those rights, either in a contract you signed with your employer, another person, or any entity that isn't yourself (well, technically you can sign over the copyright to yourself, but that's a little odd).

The on your own time thing above is the same as being a contractor/freelance working for another entity. Anything you make is owned by you, unless you signed away your rights (generally though contract).

http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/chapter0/0-c.html - source for above

On a slightly related note, that whole site, http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/, is a really good resource for information on American copyright law.

Please note that I am not a lawyer, I do not have a law degree, and only know that which I have studied, so don't take this as sound legal advice, and consult with an actual lawyer should you need it.


First off, read your contract with her. Does it specify that she retains rights? If it does, you're done.

If it's a standard work-for-hire agreement (Company hires Designer to create XYZ for $$$), then I would say the designer doesn't "own" that design. You hired her to do it, she did it, you paid her, it's yours. Otherwise she could take the design she created for you and use it for a dozen other clients, diluting your brand.

Second, has she been paid already? If she has already received all money for all work completed, then I think ownership transfers to you (minus any prior agreement otherwise).

If she had done work for you on spec (that is, you asked for a sample or a mockup) but she hasn't been paid yet, or you took her work and gave to someone else to improve without paying her, then she has some grounds for complaint. She's done the work, but you haven't completed your end of the contract.

It sounds to me like the designer is trying to keep paid work coming in but is being clumsy about it.

  • Great answer, but @Sam might have a valid point. Ownership needs to be specifically dictated in the contract. From what I've understood over the years, there is no real default. Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 13:24

Unless specifically stated in a contract, the designer retains copyright to the design. Ethically, it's a little murky not to spell this out in a contract, but legally she may be correct. I would hope that the original contract would have been clear on those points.

This article gives a good overview of the situation, although it isn't to be taken as a substitute for legal advice.

Also check this out specifically the section on Who Owns Copyrighted Material?.

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