Design Drama

documenting the delicate dance of design

The Native (Files) Are Restless November 11, 2008

I had a dilemma arise this week that I’ve never encountered before.

First, a little background:

I took on the task of a project that seemed simple enough at first – design a packaging for a product. Upon the initial client meeting, I was handed a disc of art files and additional materials instructing me on how the client wanted the product to look. We also agreed upon a flat fee, half of which I received up front.

Last Friday, I began the project as I had awaited one final element to begin the design process. I spent over seven hours on Friday working on the project — this included looking for two types of photographs that can only be described as obscure. That task was only complicated more as the client didn’t have the money to spend on any type of professional photography services, nor did said client have the money to purchase anything from a stock photo site on the web. Basically, I had little or nothing to work with.

I ended up getting severely lucky with one of the elements. The other, he happened to have what he needed in his possession and took his own photographs and sent to me. After acquiring those two photographic elements, I spent six hours cutting the background out from one of the elements – the other photo, I gleaned the piece of the photo I needed which amounted to exhausting that one element of the photo, using Photoshop to enlarge it and adding more to what was previously not there before.

Then, over the weekend I got an email from the client. The email stated that the project was to be at the printer today (Monday). I replied to the email and explained that deadline was virtually impossible as I had only received photographic elements mid-afternoon on Friday and was still knee-deep in the design of the project. He relented and said Tuesday would be a workable deadline.

So, today I sent a second proof via email. The client and another person involved pow-wowed on the proof, sent back edits and I reworked the project to their exact specifications. I went down the list, checking things off.

Tonight, after sending the second proof off, I got an email asking that I send the native Photoshop files to him — that he would like to work with them and that it “must be the designer in him.”


Now, I don’t know about other designers, but this here are my things about this:

I spent years in college honing my art skills and my design capabilities. And I’ve spent 10+ years working professionally as a graphic designer. I have what it takes to get a project to a final conclusion that I am proud of. I have a portfolio full of projects I am proud of and clients I am blessed to have a continued working relationship.

In all those years that I have spent, I have learned many things. Why should I turn over my intellectual property to someone who can just take this and that and reuse it for their own profit?

Also, knowledge is power. I possess a design and computer proficiency that makes my talent valuable. I know how to set up a file for print and I can muddle my way through a certain amount of web design. If everyone knew how to do this, my profession would cease to exist. And if I just hand over my knowledge to every client that asks, aren’t I devaluing my design knowledge and artistic skills and running my own business into the ground?

Also, once I hand over the Photoshop files, it ceases to be MY work.

I consulted the web to see what other people had done in my situation. The results were all over the map. But the general consensus seems to be that a graphic designer is only beholden to give up the final files for printing, NOT the workable native Photoshop files. Those are the designer’s intellectual property.

One person made the comment that the PSD files contain “trade secrets” — I guess I’d have to agree with that. I have a certain way of creating certain looks within my design. I’ll be the first to admit, one way I learned a lot about Photoshop was from looking at other designers Photoshop files. Who is to say that some fly by night person who bought Photoshop won’t do the same? (There’s no way this person will be able to reach the learning curve my PSD files would throw his way… I’m not terribly worried about that, actually…)

I spoke online to a former classmate of mine tonight. She echoed my point of view on another facet of this topic — why aren’t graphic designers taught business courses? My classmate and I, during our college years, were required to take FOUR semesters of foreign language. Now, I’m not putting down the need to be bilingual in any sense, but we both agreed that those four semesters would have been better spent in business classes that specifically dealt with the ethics of graphic design and selling art. And for the record.. all my four years of Spanish taught me was how to order a beer and find a bathroom — which in my opinion, are the two basic things needed to when speaking that language.

In the end, after I calmed down after receiving the email, I emailed a response to my client and explained that the question he broached made me uncomfortable and I found it somewhat unethical to pose such a request. But I also added that as I am a designer that works with my clients, although every bit of me that values my design skills was against it, I would send him the files. BUT any edits that are made to them are subject to an additional fee as this could lead to a disruption of my work flow. I told him I’m sure he would understand me amending my end of the agreement (my fee) as he was amending his (hiring me to do the design work exclusively without outside interference).

I’ve yet to hear back.

What do you think?


10 Responses to “The Native (Files) Are Restless”

  1. […] Intellectual Property Rights Stuff Posted on November 11, 2008 by Aunt B. So, today Beth is talking about interesting intellectual property rights stuff in regards to what to do when y…. […]

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Speaking as a cog in the wheel of a corporate marketing communications group, we consider work like this “work for hire,” and all files are ours. But our contract specifies as such, so it’s no surprise to anyone. I just find it odd that you think it is “yours,” when you did it to the specifications of someone else who paid you to do it. They wanted it and paid you for it; it’s now no longer yours.

  3. Paul Chenoweth Says:

    I have been on both sides of this…both as designer and client. In 20/20 hindsight, ownership of the original artwork (PSD file in this instance) should be negotiated in advance.

    If you smell an ethical breech on your client’s part, it may be time to move on to other clients.

  4. Matt Mikulla Says:

    In photography you usually never give full rights and usage.

    Design may be a little different and these issues really need to be laid out in the contract before any work is done.

    I love when clients think they can produce. If it weren’t so sad it would be funny to watch them fail. It just sucks when the mess with something you spent so much energy and time on.

  5. CeeElCee Says:

    If you were a jingle writer, would the client expect you to give them the sheet music and all the arrangements for the band in case they wanted to change the tune after you’ve already produced and recorded it?

    Does Honda include the schematics in the glove compartment when you buy an Accord in case you want to rewire the emissions system to make it go faster?

    Does Deb Paquette hand out the recipe with her unbelievable paella at Zola’s in case you want to make it at home after you tweak it a little bit?

    No. You are contracted for your finished product and your process is your proprietary asset. Protect it with vigor.

  6. missbethd Says:

    All interesting points of view… I like the spectrum of backgrounds and varied opinions. This argument won’t be solved anytime soon. However, the client and I are still on good terms and are working together to bring this to conclusion. He sees my position as I see his. We’re both adults here.

    Here’s another illustration — the best analogy that I can come up with.

    Everybody in Nashville is familiar with the clothing designs by Manuel. Say I walk into Manuel’s shop on 21st Avenue – and I commission him to create a couture dress for me. We agree upon a price of $5,000 and a deadline in which the dress is to be finished and I pay half the money, $2,500, up front. After Manuel works on the dress for a week, and I make two revisions to the piece of clothing, I come back to the store and ask Manuel to take the dress home, because I’ve got a bedazzler and want to add my own rhinestones — some I got at Michael’s or another art supply store. But I tell him I’ll give it back to him to finish after I put my own work into it, because, after all, I’m an artist too.

    Do anyone think that would fly? No, of course it wouldn’t. And I don’t see the difference in what is being asked of me and the fictional situation I’ve outlined above.

    For the record, in the past, when a client has asked for the files – including the PSD files – once the job is done, I’ve never had an issue turning those things over. But this is when the project is done. The issue is, I have only received a portion of payment. My files are my only leverage that I will receive the stated amount. As well, I don’t want to turn over my files and lose creative control of something my name is on, when someone could alter it to a sub-standard point of conclusion.

  7. polerin Says:

    As a Web-app designer, I regularly have to give clients access too the inner workings of the project (it’s usually php). Normally there is something in the contract that specifies they will be charged if we have to go back and fix something they decide they want to break.

    And boy do they break stuff. Ugh.

  8. dolphin Says:

    Speaking to Jennifer’s point, “work for hire” does (unless specified otherwise in a written contract) legally belong to the client, not the designer, but only at the point of completion and payment. Prior to the that point, all work is owned by the designer.

  9. jim voorhies Says:

    It’s only work for hire if there is a contract that says that. If there is no contract, there’s no legal room for the client to stand upon.

    If the client says we need you to design a printed piece and they are given a properly prepared to print specifications PDF or EPS file, they have what they requested.

    If they said up front they wanted the files after I was done, they would get them, but they would pay extra for the files. (They would not get the fonts themselves, since those are licensed.)

  10. […] The client is always right. Now, mind you if they want your Photoshop files, you should refer to this post — but most of the time, you need to listen to the direction of what the client is requesting […]

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