Everything you should know about intellectual property

You’re a creative freelancer, not a lawyer. You’re more focused on your HTML, PSDs, design principles, or finding the perfect sketching tool than legalese and intellectual property (IP).

(As you should be.)

But dry and intimidating as this topic may sound, a little bit of understanding can go a long way toward improving your business. Understanding your IP rights can mean the difference between paid and getting PAID.

First, let’s talk definitions.

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Intellectual property is defined as:

creations of the mind such as inventions, literary works, artistic works, designs, symbols, names, and images used in commerce.

Why are IP rights important?

IP rights are important because, by giving away the right to what you have created (your intellectual property), you could be giving away future benefits of that property as well.

Say back in the day you were hired by a famous athletics company to produce a logo and advertising campaign. In a stroke of genius, you design the now famous swoosh logo and incorporate it into your design.

Even though the client paid you for your work, if you didn’t give them explicit rights to the IP, you still own the rights. This means you could incorporate it into other designs and continue to make money from it.

If the client wanted exclusive rights to the swoosh logo, they would need to purchase the intellectual property rights for your design.

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So you can see how money could be lost if you don’t pay close attention to IP rights! Imagine if you got just a penny every time the client put that swoosh on a product or ad.

That’s the difference between getting paid and getting PAID.

Where your IP rights come from

IP rights are laid out in the American Constitution. (International readers: check with your government about your rights.)

However, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically covered when you begin a freelance project.

Most clients will push for “exclusive and indefinite” use of the IP and most freelancing websites like Upwork grant give them this. By just accepting these terms, you’re giving up your IP rights for whatever you create.

It may make sense in some cases if you’re fairly compensated, but not across the board.

If you work directly with a client, don’t assume your intellectual property rights are safe.  Businesses often have more legal say in the matter than you realize.

So what’s the solution?

Use a contract to protect your IP rights

As has been mentioned on Millo before, you should always freelance with a contract.

Contracts are your best weapon against losing IP rights. Contracts let you stipulate any of various means with which the client can use your IP.

  • You could sell the IP to them outright.
  • You could grant them the right to use your product for an amount of time while you still retain ownership.
  • Or you could give them the right to use your product for a limited time period and charge an additional fee for that.

There are many options depending on your situation.

At the very least, a general statement regarding IP ownership should be included in every contract. Extra language should be added the details the sale of your rights if the need should arise.

Because IP can be confusing, it’s often not included properly or at all in contract templates. It’s best to use templates that have been created specifically for freelancers, such as by Bonsai or Shake.

In closing

Don’t leave money on the table and don’t give away your IP because you don’t know better.

Protect your IP rights by always using a contract that outlines who owns what under different scenarios. Once you understand how valuable IP rights can be, you’ll regret you didn’t take the time to understand them sooner!

How do you protect your intellectual property rights? Leave a tip in the comments!

As always, please seek professional legal help when dealing with issues of legality, copyright, or intellectual property. You can’t hold Millo liable for damages that may result in the use or misuse of the content in this post.


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  1. Hi Matt, great post! One query – would you recommend contracts for all freelance work, or only for larger more substantial clients and projects?

  2. great article. I checked on Bonsai and Shake. If you live in Canada like me you cannot use Shake. Bonsai is across US UK and Canada. It is always good to read the FAQ’s before signing up for any website account. 😀

      1. Yeah that happens a lot too. I used to live in Quebec and it was so hard to find things that are readily available to Quebec residents. So to find out before I signed up for anything that was the first thing I would search for in the FAQ’s.

  3. Hmm. When I look at the free contract sample on Bonsai, the contract says under Ownership and Licenses “2.1 Client Owns All Work Product.” I understand this is editable, but it is contradictory to what you are discussing in your article. Everything appears to be written to protect the client–not the designer. I did not see other scenario options regarding ownership that give limited rights etc. I reserve the right to ownership of my creations, especially my work product. The client is buying an end product, not all of my ideas that I explored to get there. Identity design is the only product that I give my client full rights.

  4. Thanks, Matt. As a writer I’ve learned so much about all the different levels of IP and copyright (yawn) and it can get really complicated. Glad to see this on Millo, it’s an important topic, especially when using other people’s IP (like free stock photos).

    1. @descomgroup:disqus : Matt runs Bonsai, which provides free work contracts to freelancers. There’s a lot of really cool things happening at Bonsai. You can see my thoughts on it here. Thanks!

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