When I first started teaching Graphic Design my job was to get students through their A-Levels and into University, but not any more. Increasingly those reaching the end of their time at college are picking from an ever increasing range of options, one of which is a mixed bag of employment and freelance design work. But if you are entering this world you need to make sure that you know how to protect your Intellectual property. 

What is Intellectual Property (IP)?

Intellectual property is work that has been produced as a result of thought and can include inventions, designs, symbols, names and artistic works. They don’t have to exist as tangible things, but can be ideas recorded digitally or on paper, for example if you are a photographer sharing images on social media that’s your IP.

Copyright it

Every time you want to up-load onto social media, send a design to a client, or event print it out for your own files – mark it as copyright. This means adding the copyright symbol (©), your name and the year of creation. But this doesn’t affect the level of protection you have. Unmarked work is also protected by copyright and there is no fee of application to go through. The notice just reminds people that the work is yours and should act as a deterrent to anyone who wants to use it without permission.

Selling work? Then who gets the copyright?

There are different ways of selling work. As an illustrator you may sell a piece for a one off fee, this is called assignment. The copyright will transfer with the sale of the work, and the new owner can use it as they choose and as many times as they want as it now belongs to them. Additionally, as it is no longer yours, you need to be careful that you do not infringe their copyright. Using the work in a portfolio for example is, in most cases, fine, but you cannot sell the work to anyone else.

Alternately you can license the work. The cost to the user is smaller but how it is used must be agreed. Should they want to use it further than first agreed, an additional cost is applied. This allows you to sell the same work a number of times, but for less than if the work was assigned. This allows others to use your work but without infringing your copyright.

What about employers?

If you work both as an employed designer and a freelance designer the rules are different. Anything made for an employer is owned by them and so is the copyright. Again, they may be happy for you to use the work as part of your online profile but this would need to be agreed, and in writing. A simple email exchange can act as a useful record should there ever be a change of opinion on this and can be used in place of a more formal contract.

What else can I do?

As well as telling everyone your work is yours you can make other additions or alterations to protect it. These range from watermarks and low quality resolutions for images, to letting people know work is for sale and easy to find contact details. Another good idea is to disable right-click making casual ‘stealing’ much less likely. The same ideas apply for music or film with digital watermarks or fingerprints.

These simple, and free, steps can allow you to share your work, build a portfolio and a business while simultaneously putting off others using it without your permission.