As a graphic designer, I have several clients for whom I have been doing regular design work (new logo, brochures, ads, etc.), no contracts involved. Once they paid for it, do they actually OWN the rights to my artwork, or do they only have the rights to USE it for the specific application each was created for?
If I fire a client (or client fires me), does he still own my artwork and have the rights to use, say a logo I created for him in the past, if I never signed such a release to him?
The default under US Copyright law is that unless you a bona fide W2 employee and doing this creative work within the scope of that employment OR you are an independent but working under a properly drafted work-for-hire/assignment agreement then all the IP rights remain with the creator. The employer, however, does receive an implied license by operation of law to use whatever was prepared for all its intended purposes and this license cannot be frustrated by you, such as licensing the same to a competitor or taking the material and competing directly with them, etc.
So it could very well be the case that even though you own the underlying IP rights they have no value practically speaking and in other cases it may still prove commercially valuable. For example, lets say Bono from U2 calls your client because he is so impressed with the logo you created he wants to license it to use on the cover of his new album. Your client, without owning the IP rights, cannot enter into that transaction without your permission, but you however could because at least presumably such an agreement would not compete with or frustrate your client's use of the same.
Do yourself a big favor assuming you take your business seriously and are not just fooling around and have a proper master service agreement prepared to use for your clients. It can end up saving you thousands of dollars and some major headaches moving forward.
I suggest that you consult with a lawyer in private and discuss your objectives in more detail. You can start by calling around to several for a free phone consultation, get some insights then pick the best fit to work with.
DISCLAIMER: this is not intended to be specific legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. No attorney-client relationship is formed with the law firm of Natoli-Lapin, LLC on the basis of this posting.
First, I strongly suggest that you execute a contract for each and every client you do design work for in the future With that being being said you should contact a copyright lawyer in your State and be advised of the work made for hire rules governing your State when there is no contract and as it applies to your facts.
I concur with the response already given by Attorney Virga. Also, keep separate the artwork and the copyright in the artwork. You may own the copyright while your client owns the copy you provided them. Further, as you likely developed and provided the design for a specific purpose, severing your connection does not cancel their right to such usage. In other words, they still have the right to use it for the purpose originally intended.
A definite maybe and a certain perhaps. An argument could be made that this was work for hire. And the opposite could also be argued. Without a contract, who knows? One thing that is definite and certain is that you should hire an attorney to prepare agreements for use in the future.
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I agree with Attorney Natoli. You likely own the copyrights in the works but have transferred to your clients a license to them to use those works for which they were intended -- and have made an implied contractual promise, or even have a legal duty, not to convey any right in those works to anyone else in competition with your client. Speak with your own intellectual property attorney.
The above response is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.
Unless you are an employee, or have a contract transferring the copyright to the client, you own the design. You should have agreements prepared by a copyright attorney that you can use in your business. Contact an experienced copyright/IP attorney.
Mr. Sack's postings on Avvo are of a general nature, based on the facts provided and are not intended to be taken as legal advice or to establish an attorney-client relationship.
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