Do you sell the use of your designs but keep the copyright?

Posted on: June 25th, 2012

I went to an interesting Designer Breakfast the other morning, called A Penny for Your Thoughts. The discussion centred on whether designers are selling themselves short by settling for straight fees instead of keeping the copyright and negotiating licences for selling the use of their designs.

1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act

One of the panel members, Susan Griggs, was instrumental in the successful lobby to change UK law back in 1988 with the introduction of the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. As a result, it’s now normal for photographers and illustrators to keep copyright in their work, control its use and the fees it can earn. She wanted to know why designers don’t do the same.

After all, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 gives the creators of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works the right to control the ways in which their material may be used. Artistic works include photography, painting, architecture, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos, etc.

Grant your client a license

Since logos are covered by the Act, her advice was to say to clients that you grant an exclusive license for your design x to be used for purpose y. Tell the client that they don’t have to pay you for every possible use of that design right this moment, they only have to pay for how they want to use it now.

If the client wants to use your same designs for another purpose at some point in the future, then you will charge them for that extra use when the time comes. For example, using a logo in the UK and then wanting to extend that use to other countries.

Your copyright is more valuable than you realise

The main takeaway point was that it’s not about the creating of the designs, it’s about what you do with them after. You own the copyright and it’s more valuable than you realise.

The Nike ‘Swoosh’ was created by Carolyn Davidson in 1971 and she charged US$2 an hour for the time it took her to design it. Think how much that logo is worth. Most brand designers are like Carolyn Davidson and hand over the copyright to their work once the client pays the bill – and could be losing a small fortune in the process.

Stealing ideas

The discussion then went on to new business pitches, where designers are too quick to reveal their ideas, with the result that the potential ‘client’ can easily steal these and use them, without paying the designers a penny.

The advice given was to write on the proposal document that the information you are sharing is not to be exploited without the design agency’s consent. Or stick a bar code from Creative Barcode on the document to help protect your intellectual property, and safely disclose your creative ideas and business proposals. Each barcode costs £6.

Although the breakfast focused on the design industry, the above points apply equally to PR people, writers and advertisers.

How do you protect how your work is re-used?   


2 Responses to “Do you sell the use of your designs but keep the copyright?”

  1. Paul Murray
    July 1st, 2012

    Hi Carole, this is a very interesting point. Earlier this year I attended a discussion about designing for the music industry, during which designer Kate Moross raised a similar point and solution.

    She explained that her company has 3 fees they charge when designing for bands; One fee for unsigned bands, another for bands signed to an independent record label and a final fee for those signed to a major label.

    They specify in the contract that if a band signed to an indy label later gets signed to a major one for example, they must pay the appropriate fee to continue using the design at that “higher level”.

    I wonder if this way of working would be accepted by businesses? ? It’s hard enough as it is to convince business owners to use you rather than a cheaper design alternative. If you tell them you’ll be billing them again when/if they expand, I think most would laugh in your face.

  2. Carole
    July 2nd, 2012

    Hi Paul

    The music industry example is an interesting one.

    I agree that the majority of clients will refuse to pay if they want to re-use your work in a different way. Even though the 1988 Act is there to say they DO need to. The other day I downloaded a brochure from a website I’d recently written (for a well known and high profile international company) and the brochure text was word for word the web copy I’d written. Technically (and legally) they should pay me a re-use fee. But they won’t I’m sure.

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