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

Earlier this month in our free facebook group for freelancers, Lisa had a question that we thought was worthy of a more in-depth answer:

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

Here’s exactly how she put it:

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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?

Whether or not you can put company projects in your portfolio is a serious question.

Like many of us, you most likely got your start working in-house at an agency, studio, or corporate office. Years later, you either get laid off or leave the job to become a freelance designer.

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.

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But can you legally include projects you did while working for someone else? If you worked for an agency, can you use agency work in your personal portfolio?

The purpose of this article is to answer your questions technically and legally. Please keep in mind: we’re freelancers. Not lawyers. So this is not official legal advice. You can use our friends at Lawgood for the really tough legal questions.

Now, back to the question: can you put company projects in your portfolio?

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 operating 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 a “work-for-hire” agreement when you were hired then you own the work yourself and can do as you please.

But the most likely scenario is that your former employer owns the work you created for them.

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 default.

That can seem a bit frustrating at face value. I mean, you created the work, shouldn’t you be allowed to include it in your portfolio. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, here’s our advice:

Our advice for putting company projects in your portfolio

There’s a simple way to get around this legal blockade that doesn’t give you permission to legally include agency work in your personal portfolio:

Just ask for permission.

It seems pretty simple, but it’s by far the simplest way to put previous work in your portfolio. We had a few fellow freelancers agree in the Facebook group too. 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 company projects in your portfolio

If you choose to display agency work in your own personal portfolio, you may want to consider also doing the following:

  • Clearly mention that the work was done by you while working at a studio (thx to Ian for that one).
  • Only include highlights of the work you did at the agency—not every single bit of work.
  • Include pieces from other projects to diversify and show you’re able to complete a quality project outside of the studio setting.

These tips don’t necessarily remove your obligation to ask for permission before including company work in your personal portfolio, but they’re good things to keep in mind once you have gained permission.

Agreeing to these kinds of terms may also increase the chances of your former employer agreeing to allow you to put previous agency work in your personal portfolio.

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 to put company projects in your portfolio, the safest thing to do is to avoid including the projects at all.

It’s sad. But it’s safe.

If you just can’t avoid the temptation, keep in mind you’re taking a legal risk. Your former employer may never reach out about it. Or they may choose to sue you over it. But most likely, they’ll just send an email or a letter requesting you take company projects out of your portfolio.

So, all in all, it may be a risk you’re willing to take. But again, I’m no lawyer.

Consider putting minimal amounts of company 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—a small consolation prize.

What if your previous employer asks you to remove something from your portfolio?

If you have any agency work in your portfolio and get requests to remove it, comply. And comply quickly. Often, simple requestes such as these are precursors to legal action, but if you take swift action (or at least address the issue kindly) you can avoid time-consuming and expensive legal action.

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

Don’t use old work as a crutch

While you may need to put company projects in your portfolio when you’re first getting started and looking for new freelance jobs, you should strive to move away from your old work as quickly as possible.

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.

Summing up the answer:

All in all, the question of “can i put company projects in my portfolio” comes down to just a couple things:

  • Do you own the work?
  • If not, how much risk are you willing to take?

Remember, if you need legal help, our friends are waiting to help you. Other than that, just make a decision and move forward. You’ve got this!

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  1. Unless you’re a student or just work on personal passion projects, I would think you own almost none of your work. I’ve been out of the freelance world for a few years but looking to get back into it as my current in-house position offers little opportunity for growth, and design jobs for someone as senior as I am in my career are few and far between around here. When I did freelance regularly, though, my client agreements always included a clause stating that I retained the right to display my work for my own marketing purposes.

    It’s a little trickier when you’re on some corporate or agency payroll. I did not sign a work-for-hire agreement when I started at my company, and I have the informal permission of my manager to display what I want so long as it’s already published. The question for me is, I don’t use my given name in my freelance business because 1) it’s a difficult name to spell/pronounce/remember, and 2) I really don’t want people I work with knowing I’m moonlighting. But it feels weird to think about displaying that work under a pseudonym. Anyone have any thoughts about that?

  2. 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.

    1. That’s a great thought! You’re technically still displaying work you may not have copyright permission to display, but I really love this idea! Thanks, Greg.

  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. 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 🙂

    1. Adam, if you find the actual legislation, I’d love to know. And we can include that info here in an update. Thanks for reading!

  5. 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?

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