I work as a graphic designer in a big European (but not E.U.) public establishment with two fellow designers.

We have a corporate communications coordinator, which usually deals with all kinds of stuff including "managing" the design process, but it usually fails. S/he usually requests and pays for "designing a poster" to an external agency and then asks for its source files so that we can adapt that "design" to some other mediums such as creating a billboard, social media images, brochures or even "converting" it in our own language (when it's designed in English) and even some revisions of the original work.

I'm suspecting that rather than paying for these revisions or adaptations to the external agency, our management tries to take advantage of us, being a some-kind-of public official, who they think will be obey their "orders".

Is it legal or ethical to do something like that? I don't think it is legal, ethical and even can't be classified as a "designers job" to edit someone else's work. I will be refusing to work on such projects officially but I can't manage to find any similar experiences on web.

I'm planning to ask for an official consent of the external agency that they are aware of someone is using their work to create such derivations. I will also ask for the official agreement between our firm and the agency to see if there is any stated information about "modified work".

What other things can I present to our general managers (which are hierarchically on top of this coordinator and its supervisor) to reject this kind of project?

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    You say you work in a "foreign public establishment". Foreign to whom? If you're assuming that this is an American site, actually only about a third of contributors to Stack Exchange sites are American. It would be better to state what country you're in, in case it makes a difference to answers. Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 17:24
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    I'm from a non-eu european country and I don't want to disclose further information for privacy reasons. I'm also double checking our copyright laws to see if I find any related case similar to ours. Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 18:09

2 Answers 2


In answer to your question about can you make derivative works from the source files provided by an external agency - it depends on how you purchase those "source" files. If you are paying for "work for hire" and the agreement is you own the source then yes you have every right to modify size or even use graphical elements in other works.

I'm familiar with "work for hire" because the artist Keith Haring sold several of his works copyright and all to Playboy. Playboy then made watches, towels, and other products from those works that a company I co-founded help sell - something Playboy could do because they purchased the copyright AND the work itself.

The Haring foundation, the group established to manage Keith Haring's estate, didn't like it and threatened to sue but the agreement between Haring and Hefner was clear - Playboy owned the copyright and paid more for the work in order to re-print. The estate was mad about the "reprints" being products not in the magazine, but "reprint" wasn't defined as limited to the magazine so a lawsuit would have been expensive and fruitless for the foundation.

Yes you can make derivative work if your agreement pays for the copyright. If the work is considered "work for hire" where you management asked a designer to do a job and it was stated that the copyright of the work created transferred from the artist creating it to your buying managers then you/they can do whatever you/they want.

Copyright always stays with the artist by default, so best to have an agreement that states (c) is moved as "work for hire" and so derivative work(s) are fine and part of the agreement.

Without an agreement stating how copyright is transferred then NO you may not safely create derivative works since (c) is owned by the original designer.

  • This would be a great answer if you could add a source to the Playboy-Harring story.
    – PieBie
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 15:24
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    This is a great summary of US copyright law. It's a bit different in other countries. I believe in most European countries, it's more to the favour of the client not the artist (i.e. any contract can transfer copyright, not just special "work for hire" contracts). If the agencies are willing to transfer source files - which they are under no obligation to do, even if copyright has been transferred - then it's very likely they have a contract transferring copyright and allowing modifications (usually for an extra fee) Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 15:27
  • It seems that next step for me should be asking for the agreement between our establishment and external agency in order to see if agency has given permission for the modification of their work. I'm also going to check if the rule Copyright always stays with the artist by default applies to our copyright law. Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 18:14

What you're describing sounds like completely legal work, and is in fact how advertisements are transcreated to then be sent out across the world.

An external agency creates the 'Master' advertisement. Lets say, for example, a poster of a woman smiling, holding a tube of toothpaste, with some text at the top.

It is then the job of the transcreation agency to take that master, and adapt it, not just for other media (such as billboards, online, magazines etc) but also other languages. In fact, in transcription, a designer is sometimes asked to photoshop the original advertisement to make it more culturally appropriate. Let's say this woman holding toothpaste has bare shoulders, and in some countries the advertisement is going to, that goes against cultural allowances. The transcription agency will photoshop covering onto the model.

This should all be covered in the contract between the originating creative agency, and whoever you're working for.

Sounds like you're being asked to do your job.

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