Ask Global Wire Associates: Who Owns The Copyright?

Questions Image Credit: AllThingsDI need to create a new logo for my company’s brand and marketing.  I want to hire a graphic designer to create the logo.  But I was told that I may not own the rights to the logo once it is done.  Are there copyright issues I have to know about before I hire a designer?

-Prajit Shah, Mumbai, India

First, let’s look at what the word copyright means.  Internationally, copyright is generally accepted as the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute and commercially profit from a creative work, such as an illustration, photography, copywriting, artwork or any other form of graphic design.  This also includes web design and development tools, like front-end and back-end coding, applications and other content.  In the new digital age we live in today, copyright ownership and infringement have had their lines blurred.

Legally, the creator of the work holds the exclusive copyright.  However, there are a few exceptions to the rule.  There is a term called “work made for hire,” which means that if you hire a graphic designer as a full-time employee of your company, any work created by that designer becomes the property of the company.  If you hire an independent contractor or a third-party design firm to create your logo, that logo’s copyright is still owned by the contractor or design firm, unless your contract with the designer explicitly says that the client company owns it.

When a contract doesn’t specify client ownership, the client is essentially paying to use the logo under the graphic designer’s copyright for a one-time use license.  Why is it done this way?  Mainly to protect graphic designers and to make sure they are properly compensated for their work.  Graphic designers also need to protect their work because they want to be able to create similar types of work for other clients on future projects.

It is very common for creative professionals to sue their clients because the clients used the work beyond the intended purposes.  For example, a company hires an self-employed designer to create an illustration which is only intended for printed brochures and flyers.  The company starts using the illustration on their website, social media and other places.  The graphic designer might come back and ask for more money for an extended or multiple use license.

Most creative professionals agree that there are specific types of work that the client company should hold exclusive copyright, such as work that will be used as part of a long-term marketing strategy for a company, like logos, websites and other branding collateral.  But, again, the company needs to have all this in writing in the contract.

What should a contract between a client and designer look like?

  1. Never use third-party content without the permission of the owner – Just because you found an image on Google doesn’t mean you can use it.  And the client needs to know this.  When a contract is drawn, the client is promising that all content provide to the designer to be used in their creation is their own, and if it isn’t owned by the client, the designer is not held responsible for infringement.
  2. One-time or multiple use license? – Clients need to let their designers know the full extent to how their work will be used so they can charge and grant permission appropriately
  3. Work made for hire? – If the designer is on the company’s payroll full-time, the work is automatically owned by the company.  Otherwise, the designer retains copyright.  There are certain circumstances when an independent contractor is considered work made for hire when the contract specifically transfers copyright to the client company when the work is completed.

Whatever you decide to do with creative work, be sure you understand how the copyright laws work in the country in which your company is doing business to avoid any future problems (or lawsuits).

This is a very broad topic, and there are many other issues and complications that come up depending on the type of creative work.  We plan to host a webinar on 22 August that specifically looks at intellectual property issues, and copyright infringement will be a main topic.  We have invited two lawyers who specialize in international copyright law to answer your questions.  Please consider attending and RSVP at mnakello(at)globalwireonline(dot)org.
Have a question? Email us at info(at)globalwireonline(dot)org with “Ask Global Wire Associates” in the subject line.  

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