I am a freelance web designer. I am working out a contract with a client to revamp an existing site and freshen the design.

In my contract I have some language which I adapted from the AIGA boilerplate about copyright. The gist is this:

  • I am developing a design for Client. I will create three comp designs. Client chooses one and we revise it until Client is happy with it. Three rounds of revisions are included; anything after that is paid by the hour on top of the original estimate.
  • I own the copyright to all the designs. When Client submits the final payment for the entire website, Client owns the copyright to the finished site and its design.
  • If Client cancels the project before it's finished, I retain the copyright to the unfinished, revised chosen design, unless we specifically agree that I will sell it to him.
  • I estimate the site will cost $X. I submit invoices at various milestones in the project. I keep track of my work hourly, and Client pays for the work I've done (that is, if I estimate the job will cost $X because it will take me Y hours, and it takes me Y + 3, I will charge for three more hours of my time; if it takes Y - three, I will charge for three hours less).

The client came back with revisions about copyright, saying he thinks that he owns the copyright to all the comps "because it's my site."

I asked a non-designer friend who's a reasonably high corporate muckety-muck, and he thinks that the copyright hinges on how I'm being paid:

If I'm setting up the contract as hourly, then it is "work-for-hire" (even though I don't have that anywhere in the contract) and Client owns all the copyright to all three comps. If I'm setting up the contract as "work for project" (Client pays $X for finished website, however many hours it takes), then I would own the comp copyrights.

This doesn't make sense to me. Why would Client get the rights to two (or more) designs which he isn't using? If we agreed that he was going to pay for all three designs, that's fine, but two of them he didn't like. Why should he get to keep them and use them with some other designer?

Does basing my fee on hours worked somehow make this job "work for hire"? Does "hourly work for hire" somehow change copyright?

(ETA Client and I are both in the U.S.)

  • 1
    "reasonably high corporate muckety-muck" doesn't necessarily mean "legal expert" either. A podiatrist is a wonderful thing to have when dealing with fallen arches, but I wouldn't call one in to perform a lapriscopic traumatic injury repair even though they're both "Doctors". I'd consider the source. Mar 21, 2012 at 12:13
  • thus I came here, because the muckety-muck may have experience with designers, but he isn't one himself. Mar 21, 2012 at 12:30

3 Answers 3


I don't really understand. If the contract states you retain copyright to all preliminary designs, sketches, and mock-ups It doesn't matter how you invoice. The contract states what the client does and does not (or will and will not) own.

It's traditional for freelance designers to retain all rights to preliminary work unless it's otherwise stated in the contract. Pay me in seashells every 20 minutes... the contract still states what is being transferred.

In the strictest sense of the term, all freelance is work-for-hire. Primarily because the work would not be instigated without the client. Where the difference really lies is WHERE the work is completed - On your equipment with your personal tools or at their place of business with their tools. If you use their tools, they do traditionally own everything.

Edited to add a couple supporting links:

FindLaw.com Not specific to this situation, but a great article about general guidelines.

AIGA-SF This is avery good Q&A about this issue

About.com eh.. it's About.com.. take it with a grain of salt but it does support the traditional view of ownership.

  • Right, and if I were a salaried employee, this wouldn't even be coming up. But I am attempting to negotiate a contract, and Client is saying "No, this part where you say you own the copyright? I don't agree with that." I'm trying to find backup so I can explain that yes, this is standard in the industry: I do own the copyright, and that's what Client should agree to. I can't understand why Client, and my friend, think that how I'm being paid should negate who owns the work. Which is why I'm asking here. Mar 19, 2012 at 16:13
  • 1
    Added a couple links above. The AIGA link will probably be the most helpful. Of course, if the client wants EVERYTHING, you can always adjust pricing accordingly.
    – Scott
    Mar 19, 2012 at 17:03
  • So, are you working on your own equipment or using the employer's equipment? This is a small but crucial part. The overarching copyright argument is akin to a wedding photographer. They will supply prints of the chosen photographs -- retaining copyright in them -- but usually offer to sell the originals and also assign copyright (or license in perpetuity) for an additional fee. There is nothing novel about this. This client sounds like they're just attempting to hardball the deal and hope you'll fold to their demands. Dec 4, 2017 at 20:48

As others have stated, what matters is what is in the agreed upon contract.

If your client doesn't like that part, you are both free to negotiate.

Not exactly the same, but I often have a clause in my contract that 'no source files are included in the final delivery. These may be obtained for a separate fee.'

I often thrown them in anyways if they ask for them, but still like to have that clause in there.

In your situation, I'd suggest that all comps may be obtained by the client for a fee based on x% of the hours put into creating them.

If it takes 10 hours to create them all, you charge $100 an hour, and you set the extra fee at 30%, the client can have them for $300.

as an aside:

I will create three comp designs. Client chooses one and we revise it until Client is happy with it.

While extremely common, I've never been a fan, nor understood the the '3 options' thing.

I provide as many valid options as needed to achieve the objective. Sometimes its 4, sometimes 2, sometimes 1. I never put in an exact number to avoid the "here's the solution, and 2 random things I pulled out of my ass to meet the arbitrary 3" situation.

When I've seen it used, I more often than not see the solution end up being this awful mashup of pieces of all 3. This is usually due to the client randomly liking things and no proper guidance from the account executive in charge of things.

  • 1) My contract states that the client doesn't get the native files. 2) I like three so it looks like I've put some effort into looking at the problem from more than one perspective and didn't just settle for "first thought, best thought." Three also means that the client can't keep asking for more comps without paying for them, as that's spelled out as an additional cost. I will do as many as Client wants, but not for free. Mar 19, 2012 at 21:33
  • 2
    ...actually, I did ask a financial planner for more than one retirement plan. Mar 20, 2012 at 0:24
  • 1
    Well, source files are often messy. And if I'm not getting paid to explicitly clean them all up (such as labeling every layer in Photoshop, and deleting stuff from the pasteboard in Illustrator, etc) then I'm not going to bother. If they want those files, I ask for an additional fee, which is used to make those production files presentable.
    – DA01
    Mar 20, 2012 at 16:44
  • 1
    @DA01: that sounds like post-rationalisation to me. Not a criticism, just an observation - they're different industries - but your argument would go down badly if you were developing code.
    – e100
    Mar 21, 2012 at 16:41
  • 1
    well, now we're into semantics between industries and hiring situations. As a company, writing software, we'd rarely hand over any source. As a contractor doing work-for-hire, the source is what they hired me for. Both could be parallels for graphic design. Either way, if one plans on handing over the 100-layer PSDs or 20 .ai files of sketches, one needs to accommodate and properly bill for the time it takes to make those in-progress files presentable/usable to a 3rd party.
    – DA01
    Mar 21, 2012 at 17:45

Usually, design works for finished project, a finished projects includes mock-up projects.

If the client is asking for 3 mockup + 1 final, then he should pay for all four (different prices of course). (a)

An indie/freelance designer does not have the power for protect their copyright material, neither a designer needs to protect a custom design model. So i don't think that you should worry about copyright at this point. (b)

And since the clients pays for the four design then he could(should) retain all 4 copyrights.

So, you must fare for:

  • Mockup 1 took x hours.
  • Mockup 2 took y hours.
  • Mockup 3 took z hours.
  • Final product took v hours.

total price x+y+z+v


If Client cancels the project before it's finished, I retain the copyright to the unfinished, revised chosen design, unless we specifically agree that I will sell it to him.

This sound pretty dangerous.


1) designer create 3 mockup (or even more in some cases), they should be fast and generic, it should take not more than a couple of days x design.

2) The customer could says NAY or YAY for one (or more than one), in some cases, the customer can says NAY for all. If the customer disagrees then you lose all your work.

3) If the customer agree with at least one, then you start working on it, at this point, everything MUST BE DOCUMENTED (what's the customer asked).

4) Pre-release, you show the pre-release version, the customer can ask some SMALL CHANGES, all should be consistent with the documents (some customers could ask for a "do it all from scratch!")

5) final.

  • 2
    "An indie/freelance designer does not have the power for protect their copyright material" what power are you referring to? The contract is a legal document and certainly enforceable.
    – DA01
    Mar 20, 2012 at 16:46
  • Believed me, you don't want to mess with lawyers, specially if the sum of money is not so big.
    – magallanes
    Mar 21, 2012 at 18:49
  • 1
    I'm not sure where you are located, but in the US, small claims court isn't terribly difficult nor expensive for handling contract disputes.
    – DA01
    Mar 21, 2012 at 19:20
  • 1
    This is factually wrong. Unless the client dictates their own terms, which are agreed by the freelancer, which include a declaration that they will automatically and instantly hold the title to any works finished or unfinished through agreed assignment, the CREATOR - i.e., the designer - automatically holds the copyright for everything they create. Whether they then assign or license this copyright to someone is another matter. This is a fairly standard aspect of intellectual property law. Dec 4, 2017 at 20:42

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