Avoiding a major landmine when working with a designer or design firm (who is not your employee)
One of the foremost frustrations small business owners (and dentists) have in working with creative professionals is the subject of who owns the files created during the project—the project being a business card, logo, website, video, etc. When working with a designer/design firm, clients assume that the all of artwork is theirs. After all, they paid for all of it, so they should receive it. Unfortunately, what they “paid for” isn’t as simple as it may seem, and therein lays a source of frustration for a lot of clients (including dentists).
In order to understand this common and frustrating misperception, we have to define what the term “all” means, as it relates to what the client did and didn’t actually paid for.
Note: if, on the off chance the designer is an employee of your practice or you have a “work for hire” agreement, you will own all of the artwork, and the advice in this article wouldn’t apply to you. Assuming you don’t have an employee designer, read on.
When designers create a creative project like a business card, website, logo, or video, they generate two types of files: source and final.
1) Final files are, as the name suggests, computer files that the designer outputs or renders at the end of her/his project. They are typically sent to the printer for printing or uploaded to a website for viewing. Think of them as a design project’s deliverables. If that concept is still a little murky, think of final files as a tax return your CPA provides to you. While she/he might have a ton of additional files and paperwork associated with preparing your return, you just receive the final return. You don’t see or have access to the files used in preparing your return.
2) Conversely, source files are the files an artist uses to create their designs with before exporting/rendering them as a final project. Using the CPA example above, these would be all of the files and paperwork the CPA uses to prepare your tax return, but not the final return you would send to the state or federal government. Another way to look at final and source files is comparing them to a meal you would order at a restaurant. When you order a NY strip, you receive the steak on a plate (final file). You don’t receive the steak on a plate, as well as the stick of butter, salt and pepper shakers, special seasonings containers, the bottle of steak sauce, and the recipe (source files)—all of which were used in preparing the steak. Whether you’re a client, tax filer, or restaurateur, you can make use or enjoy the final product, but you aren’t granted the right to modify it by gaining access to the source files.
Bottom line: Unless they are your employee or you have a “work for hire” agreement, if you hire a designer/design firm to create a business card, logo, advertisement, video, or website, you should expect that the designer will not release the source files. This typically isn’t an issue if you don’t plan on editing the final file (e.g., changing the colors or text in an advertisement), or if you plan on continuing to work with the designer/design firm in the future.
Why would you want the source files?
What happens if you might want to edit the file in the future? For example, you want to have a business card for your new treatment coordinator, or you would like to remove a staff member from a promotional video. If you don’t have the source files, you’ll need to go hire the original designer/design firm to do these things for you, which you might not want to do. Nevertheless, if they have the source files—you’re stuck with them. Furthermore, if the designer/design firm you worked with in the past goes out of business, moves out of town, or heaven forbid, if they are hit by a bus, you’re out of luck.
Why don’t designers provide dental practices with the source files?
If your designer/design firm doesn’t directly or indirectly indicate if they’ll provide the source files, assume they won’t. There can be any number of reasons as to why they won’t provide them to you, from the reasonable to the ridiculous. However, they typically are centered on losing out on time or money.
- Designers fear that if they give you their source files, you won’t hire them again. In some cases, they would be right.
- Designers are unwilling to take the time to organize, gather up, and transfer the source files to you. In some cases, the source files might be several gigabytes, which take a long time to transfer and an additional cost to store.
- Designers are afraid other artists will use their source and final files and claim them as their own.
- Designers fear their trade secrets (how they set up the files) will be seen and shared by others.
- Designers may have lost the source files or decided not to save them, so they don’t have access to them. Note, this is not a good industry practice.
Can you get the source files if you hire an independent contractor(s)?
Yes. The key in doing this is to negotiate who owns the source files before the project even begins, so that it’s included into the written agreement. Some designers will charge you a nominal labor fee for the source files, some will give them away, and some will not budge on the subject. You might want to keep this in mind as you choose which designer/design firm is best for you. In order to avoid hurt feelings or complications in the future, be honest with the designer as to why you would like the source files.
Note: Early in my career I kept all of the source files, but after reevaluating things after a couple of years, I offered these to clients for a small charge for my time to transfer them.