Who owns the copyright to design work?

Copyright law

The following summarises our understanding but is not intended to be legal advice. Further information can be found at the websites listed below.

Under UK law, the originator of art, design, music and writing is the copyright owner and has intellectual rights – and these can be licensed to the company or person who commissioned the work for various uses. In general the licensed use is the purpose of the original commission – eg design and print of 10k leaflets would mean the sale of a “licence” for exactly that. Further uses of the artwork or its adaptation for another project would be by negotiation, and ownership of the electronic files, the design and all of the component parts remain with the designer. This understanding is basically the same in the UK and in the US and is put succinctly by the American Institute of Graphic Designers:

“Under U.S. copyright law, the designer is the owner of all files and artwork created for the client, and the client is the owner of the end product (i.e. a printed business cards). Release of electronic files to the client is at the discretion of the designer and is determined by the type of project. Copyright ownership may be transferred to the client for a fee that is based on the uses for which rights are being transferred.”

This applies for all forms of creative work – most people are familiar with purchasing or commissioning illustration or photography on the basis of a particular use (indeed the cost generally reflects the usage – front cover, long runs etc attract a higher fee).

Supply of electronic files

The whole area of copyright and re-use of artwork has become much more relevant since our work has been produced as computer files. Unfortunately it is a subject which can lead to misunderstanding, especially where designers have released files to clients for any reason. Take the example where a company commissions a designer to design their annual review but wants to organise the printing themselves. The designer supplies the file which is duly printed – but the following year the designer is not commissioned to design the report but sees that his work had been reused (presumably by the printer) keeping the exact same design but changing the text and pictures. He had not, of course, sold the design as a template and was left in an awkward position. This is why we now attach a note to electronic files supplied to clients to this effect: Electronic files supplied are for the stated use only and not to be changed or adapted or reused without written permission from Lawrence & Beavan. We prefer to be as open and straightforward as possible so that everyone knows where they are. We have of course supplied templates for companies (often as designed Word docs for in-house use) but in these cases the end usage has been clear from the outset.

Royalty-free images

Royalty-free imagery is a wonderful resource that has offered a huge range of affordable high quality imagery for designers’ use. There are a few outline regulations for their use: images can only be used by the purchaser, and may not be copied. There are also restrictions on their use on items for sale – eg you are not allowed to use them on commercial calendars. Full usage details are always on the companies’ websites.

Further information

Design and Artists Copyright Society

Anti Copying in Design

We welcome feedback on this or any other issue on our website. Please email us with comments or questions.