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 become a freelance designer.
Of course, one of the first (and most critical) tasks to focus on when starting your own design 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.
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.
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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 my portfolio that you created as an employee without permission.
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 site 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.
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.
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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