Financial Ownership - By Micah Spieler

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I've been graced with the topic of ownership for our blog posting. It's a fascinating subject, and there's so much for us to learn about what ownership really means to us as Designers. The logical place to start is the financial implications of ownership.

Here's just a quick overview ownership and some of the definitions associated with it, so we can all start on the same page:

Wikipedia defines ownership as the exclusive right rights and control of property. Seems pretty standard, until you start dissecting what property actually encompasses. "Object, land/real estate or intellectual property" are the three categories that maps out for property. As designers, our work will typically fall somewhere between Object and Intellectual Property, although we will most likely all come in contact with land or real estate ownership at some point in our lives.

Object: Objects can be broken into two categories, tangible and intangible - things you can physically hold, and things you cannot. Tangible objects can be physically moved. As designers, our computers, printers, posters, books, brochures, and artwork can all be described as tangible objects. Intangible objects cannot be touched, but still represent something of value - negotiations, services, and securities.

As designers, it's fairly obvious what tangible objects we have ownership over, but what can be more complicated is the intangible objects that we own. Services will be the most common form of intangible objects that we will deal with, which may include the skills you own as a designer. A service is something that typically cannot be owned by the buyer, so it is important to note that it is not the deliverables from a project, but rather the act of designing.

Intellectual Property: refers to creations of the mind - both artistically and commercially. Intellectual property again involves intangible assets, such as "musical, literary, and artistic works; discoveries and inventions; and words, phrases, symbols, and designs." Intellectual property often manifests itself in copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial design rights and trade secrets.

Securing Your Ownership
As designers, how can we secure ownership rights? For those of us who join agencies, most of our intangible and intellectual property will be the agency's to own (of course the rights of the designer to design outside of the agency is discovered on a case-by-case basis according to the terms of your contract). Most agencies will provide the necessary tools to secure the transfer of the rights of your designs from the agency to the client.

But if we strike out on our own, it will be important to manage our property. What's interesting to note is that the US is part of what's called Berne Convention, which is a cohort of most of the countries in the world, that asserts that copyright is automatic, meaning there is no need to apply for a certificate. Once a tangible is created (in most cases you must convert intangible to tangible through writing down ideas, sheet music, etc), the author automatically owns the rights to it. In "work for hire" cases, the owner may be employer, rather than the author.

Automatic ownership even holds up in court, however it is required to show proof of authorship (your sketches, your ideas as notes, etc). In cases where you want to secure a certificate, making your ownership definite impassible in court, visit for more information.

Some Final Thoughts
Here are some things to keep in mind as you pursue your career as a designer:

  • If working free-lance, MAKE YOUR EMPLOYER SIGN A CONTRACT. It's not a hard thing to do, and it provides security for both parties involved. It defines deliverables, estimates the work load, and ensures that you will get paid and your client will get what they're paying for. A simple google search will return a million (guestimation) results about what to include in a contract. Here's some great templates from BoDo (Business of Designer Online).
  • If you do end up working for an agency, check with them before agreeing to freelance, as some agencies have different feelings about this. Some agencies have you sign contracts that say that they own ALL of your design work, both on and off the clock - and this may even extend to intellectual property. Just a good question to ask before signing your contact.
  • Be assertive about your rights. If work and don't get paid, don't back down. Demand your compensation, especially if you followed my suggestion and asserted a contact before designing. If you see your designs plagiarized, don't be afraid to contact the "author" of that work and ask that they remove whatever work they've created that copies yours. Don't be overly forceful unless they refuse, as in most situations (if real plagiarizing occurs) the "author" will know their wrong doing and be cooperative.

Have you dealt with ownership woes of your own? Do you have any considerations you'd like me to look into as I continue researching this topic for our blog?

The photography industry has done a great job of protecting its product and keeping it financially successful with the per use contract and ownership of final products. This might be a great platform for designers to review as we move forward in this profession. I think this would be a great direction to research.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Micah Spieler published on February 23, 2010 10:18 AM.

Blog Outline was the previous entry in this blog.

Resource: Where to print Business Cards? is the next entry in this blog.

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