Can I include previous in-house work in my portfolio?

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Earlier this month in the Millo Mastermind facebook group, Lisa had a question that we come across all the time here at Millo.

“Can I include in-house work in my portfolio?”

Here’s exactly how she put it:

I’ve been a graphic designer for some 17ish years now (yikes) & have decided to fly solo so I’m attempting to get my folio together. Some of my work I’m really very proud of & I’d like to display it but I’m wondering if I need permission from the studios where I produced it?

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

It’s a serious question.

You’re a designer who works in-house at an agency, studio, or corporate office. Years later, you either get laid off or leave the job for other opportunities.

And whether you’re now on the prowl for a new in-house job or ready to start your own design business, it’s time to update the ol’ design portfolio.

But can you legally include projects you did while working for someone else?

The answer is a little bit complicated: it depends.

It depends entirely on what your working arrangement was with your previous employer. But the most likely scenario is you were working under a “work for hire” agreement with your employer.

“Work for hire” (according to the U.S. Copyright office—similar laws exist in various countries around the world) grants full copyright to the person or business who commissions or hires for the work itself.

More simply stated: anything you create while employed by someone else and “on the clock” is property of your employer.

Which means you technically need their permission to share, publish, or post their work.

If on the unlikely chance you didn’t sign an “work-for-hire” agreement when you were hired then you own the work yourself and can do as you please.

The most likely scenario: your employer owns the work.

And even if you didn’t sign anything, the courts would most likely agree with your employer since most employee-employer relationships are “work-for-hire” by nature.

Possibly the best advice

Here’s the best advice we can give (keep in mind we’re not lawyers and can’t give any official legal advice):

Just ask for permission.

Again from the Millo Mastermind, Julia said:

I was nervous asking my past employer, but they were surprisingly supportive and allowed me to use almost everything I wanted.

A few more tips for displaying “work-for-hire” projects in your portfolio

If you choose to display projects you don’t 100% own (even if you get permission to display them) you may want to consider also doing the following:

  • Clearly mention that the work was done by you whilst working at ‘Studio X.’(hat tip to Ian in the Millo Mastermind)
  • Don’t include all of the work you did at the former studio, just highlights.
  • Include pieces from other projects to diversify and show you’re able to complete a quality project outside of the studio setting.

What if you don’t want to (or can’t) ask a former employer for permission?

If things ended on bad terms and you’re not able to (or don’t want to) contact a former employer for permission, the safest thing to do is to avoid posting the projects at all.

If you simply must do it, keep in mind you’re taking a sizable risk (the worse the relationship between you and an employer, the more risk).

Consider putting minimal amounts of work in your portfolio and clearly labeling copyright information with it.

However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t make displaying that work any more legal. But it may diffuse the tension or give you an out if they call you.

And always comply if you get a request to pull something down that you don’t own.

Luckily, most companies will unofficially request a change before they downright sue you.

So measure your risk-reward and move forward.

Don’t use old work as a crutch

As quickly as you can, move forward. Work hard on new projects (pro-bono and paid) and feature them in your portfolio. Quickly replace any old, stale work with new, fresh, updated projects.

Don’t rely on projects that are decades old to showcase your work for clients who want to hire you today.

Good luck!

PS: As always, here’s our disclaimer: We’re not lawyers. Please don’t sue us.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

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  1. This is actually a very good subject to talk about.. I always do ask if I can use designs created by me from scratch, including the whole idea generation, for presentation in my portfolio and also if I can use the company name as a reference in my CV or anywhere else.. in most of the occasions previous employers don’t care much..
    but there can be something else: now I am a “freelancer” working on a regular long-term basis with several companies, and couple of them operate in the same field and basically compete with each other and only one of them knows I work with the others, and I was asked to do not share this information.. so now I’ve finished a few interesting projects I am proud of that I cannot even talk about, not mentioning including them into my portfolio.. and only when the collaboration with them is over I can do this.. it is a big obstacle for my business development (even after moving to another country due to the globalization of information I cannot promote myself based on those projects – the opposite would be very helpful as it is hard as it is already to start at a new place)…
    anyways, my side activity is designing clothes, and I wouldn’t mind my sawing staff to work for somebody else, but only because they do not design and generate ideas that can influence the business development flow.. so partially I understand my current clients/employers.. on the other hand, design – is not their main area of operating – so if somebody servers their need of visual representation and at the same time does it for the company focused on the same activity and audience, they shouldn’t be concerned so much I think… but on the whole I get it.. just a pity that I like all work they provide me with and I’m not ready to give up on any of them..
    also during “normal” freelancing I had couple of clients that didn’t want me to mention specific projects anywhere else.. but in my experience it is very rare..
    another thing also is when you, as an employee, design something smart in your opinion, but “management” pushes you to change it the way they want it to be so the result is not exactly what you had in mind – can you use original idea and design for your portfolio?

  2. I wish I could find the actual legislation I read regarding this and no, I’m not a lawyer either so please don’t sue me either, but I read that if you are hold a copy of it with the intend to make money from it’s use (duplication or other means of sales from it’s creation) than you would be infringing on the owners copyrights and it’s consider theft and could be means to collect puniative damages; however, If you plan to display a copy of it as work for hire for the sole purpose of showing you are capable of performing a job duty and it is a record for that, you can have 1 copy of related work to display. Again, it escapes me where in the copyright law I read this or if it was a court case of someone who won but it was clear you should only show a copy for a specific reason.

    If someone wanted to be that nosey and spiteful, ultimately you can get a cease and desist which is a warning “or else”.. The “or else” is basically a contest to see who has more money to win until one side decides to be reasonable and just say it’s not worth the time or effort to pursue it and do as the other asks.

    The best policy is to just ask and try to ask via recordable communication (email, text, google voicemail data) and you will be able to sleep well at night 🙂

  3. And “best practice” is to credit anyone else involved with the project whether it was in-house or at an agency – creative director, art director, graphic designer, copywriter, photographer, etc. It’s important to acknowledge the team if there was one.

  4. This question seldom came up back when showing your portfolio meant physically carrying a large case around to show your work one-to-one, because it wasn’t just out there for anyone and everyone to look at. Thus, for today’s web-based portfolios, another option is to put up your work, but require a password for access. You could still list the clients and agencies you did the work for, to pique the interest of potential employers. I would even recommend saying, “Due to trademark issues, I restrict who can view my award-winning work, so please email me for a password.” That not only lets you control who will see it, but also tells any interested parties that if you are sensitive to trademark issues now, you probably will be if they hire you, too. Just a thought.