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Can you put company projects in your portfolio as a freelancer? It’s a valid (and somewhat complicated) question you’ve probably asked yourself more than once as a freelancer.
Earlier this month in our freelancer Facebook group, Lisa had a question that we thought was worthy of a more in-depth answer:
“Can I include agency work in my personal portfolio?”
Here’s exactly how she put it:
“I’ve been a graphic designer for some 17ish years now & have decided to fly solo so I’m attempting to get my portfolio 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.
Maybe you, like many freelancers, got your start working in-house at an agency, studio, or corporate office and then you decide, years later, to start freelancing.
Of course, one of the first (and most critical) tasks to focus on when starting your own freelancing business is to update your portfolio with all your best work—which can often mean showcasing work you did at a former company or agency.
So, when you’re making the switch from working for someone else to working for yourself, can you use agency work in your personal portfolio?
Can you use client work in your portfolio even if you weren’t a freelancer yet?
What’s more, can you put company projects in your portfolio if you weren’t the only person to work on them?
Ultimately, you have to determine what you can legally show in your portfolio once you start freelancing.
- Check your employment contract or company policies to see if there are any restrictions on sharing your work.
- If you’re not sure, it’s best to get permission from your former employer before including their work in your portfolio.
- Be mindful of any confidential or proprietary information you may be exposing by sharing your work publicly.
The purpose of this article is to answer these important questions technically and legally. Please keep in mind: I’m not a lawyer. So this is not official legal advice. You can use our friends at Lawgood for legal questions.
That being said, I do have some experience with copyright law and I’ve been working for myself long enough to understand the basics of intellectual property.
Let me show you what that means for you:
When asking if you can put company projects on your portfolio website, the answer is, it depends.
The answer is a little bit complicated: it depends.
I know that’s not the best answer to give in these kinds of situations. I wish I could just give you a concrete answer as to whether or not you can use agency work in your personal portfolio.
But you have to ask that question on a case-by-case basis because there are a few critical factors that determine whether you can use agency work in your personal portfolio.
So here are some further clarifying questions to help you get a solid answer:
Do you own the copyright to the work?
If the answer is “yes” then of course you can include it in your portfolio. Tip: just because you created something doesn’t mean you own the copyright (more on that later).
If the answer is “no” then, you’ll need to get portfolio display rights from the former employer, company or agency for whom you accomplished the work.
If you’re not sure, then move on to the next questions.
Did you complete this project for an employer?
If the answer is “yes” then it’s most common and very likely that your former employer owns the copyright to the work you produced and you’ll need their permission before you can legally show it in your portfolio.
If the answer is “no” then you own the copyright. You don’t have to file for official copyright; you simply own the copyright to anything you made on your own (without other parties involved).
A note: Even if your employment contract doesn’t explicitly list who owns portfolio display rights or other intellectual property rights, the most likely scenario is that your former employer owns the work you created for them.
Even if you didn’t sign anything, most courts would likely rule in favor of your employer since most employee-employer relationships are “work-for-hire” by default.
Did you complete this project for a client?
If the answer is “yes” then knowing whether you can put company projects in your portfolio comes down to your original contract.
You’ll want to check for the words “work-for-hire” in your original contract. This phrase means the client owns the work you produced and you’ll need their permission to include the work in your portfolio.
Barring that phrase or any other legal agreement giving your client the rights to the project (or if you don’t have a contract) you most likely own the copyright and can put it in your portfolio with no issue.
If the answer is “no” (and you also didn’t create it for an employer) then you likely own the portfolio display rights for this project. You can include it wherever and however you’d like.
The best way to be certain you have portfolio display rights
If, after answering the questions above, you’re still not sure if you can use agency work in your personal portfolio, there’s a very simple solution.
Just ask for permission anyway.
It’s by far the simplest way to put previous work in your portfolio without a headache. When we brought this up in our freelancer Facebook group, many people agreed. Julia said:
I was nervous asking my past employer, but they were surprisingly supportive and allowed me to use almost everything I wanted.
It’s a win-win and can help you avoid legal headaches down the road.
What if you have a bad relationship with a former employer?
Of course, not everyone leaves their job on good terms. Some people hate their boss and can’t fathom the thought of emailing them to ask permission to put company projects in their portfolio.
Unfortunately, if you worked as an employee for a company while you created work for them then, legally speaking, you’re a bit stuck.
You can’t legally show projects in your portfolio that you created as an employee without permission from the company you worked for.
Of course, you can always take your chances (any good lawyer would advise against this) and put company projects in your portfolio anyway. Yes, you could get sued, but most likely the company would first send a cease and desist letter asking you to remove it from your portfolio in which case, you should.
If it did end up in court, your former employer would have to prove sufficient damages to force you to pay for their losses.
All unlikely scenarios.
As a reminder, I am not a lawyer. I have previous experience in Intellectual Property Law but you should consult with a lawyer when making your final decisions.
What if your previous employer asks you to remove work from your portfolio?
If you use client work in your portfolio and get a request to remove it, the solution is simple: comply. This is especially true if you don’t own the copyright to the work.
Unless you own the copyright, you don’t have portfolio display rights and therefore should remove the work before incurring further legal trouble.
If you believe you own the project copyright and have legal rights to display it in your portfolio, then you’ll need to respond to the request (in an amiable way) and sort it out.
If you need to take action by removing a piece of work from your portfolio, take quick action. Often, simple requests such as these are precursors to legal action, but if you address the issue quickly and kindly, you can avoid time-consuming and expensive legal battles.
Luckily, most companies will unofficially request a change before they downright sue you since they’re no more interested in paying for legal exchanges than you are.
A few more tips for putting company projects in your portfolio
Whether or not you have portfolio display rights, there are still a few good practices you may want to consider when choosing to display agency work in your own personal online portfolio or even your physical portfolio.
Give credit where it’s due
Clearly mention the work was done by you while working at an agency or other company. If appropriate, list your role and give credit to other creatives who contributed to the final work.
Keep it to a minimum
When putting company projects in your portfolio, keep it minimal. Of course, this is more difficult the earlier you are in your freelancing career. But as soon as you can switch out agency work for current freelance jobs, do it.
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 trying to get freelance clients, 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.
Keep in mind, these tips don’t 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 portfolio display rights may also increase the chances of your former employer allowing you to put previous agency work in your personal portfolio.
The bottom line: Can you put company projects in your portfolio?
All in all, the question of “can I use agency work in my personal portfolio?” comes down to just a couple of simple things:
- Do you own the work? (If yes, you’re all set)
- If not, how much risk are you willing to take? (You risk burning bridges at a minimum and legal action at worst.)
Remember, if you need legal help, our friends at Lawgood are waiting to help you. Other than that, just make a decision and move forward.
You’ve got this!
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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?
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.
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.
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.
Good addition, Kathy. Thanks!
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 🙂
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!
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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