“My Designer Wont Give Me My Files!”
“My Designer Wont Give Me My Files!”

Often, in design, there are requests by the client to release the layered, master files. Many clients feel a bit peeved when their designer tries to explain that the master files are not included in the final price and are not considered part of the Final Deliverables. Perhaps they are right to feel this way based on a misunderstanding of the profession and the assumption that the price they pay is for the rights to the master artwork. One of the roles designers play is to educate the client (or public) about many things, one of these things being why Master files are not always part of the deal. In an attempt to to clear up misconceptions, I’ve detailed the main reasons behind why master files are not considered part of the package for many freelancers.

First, we should resolve the difference between work performed by an Independent Contractor versus Work-for-Hire. According to the United States Copyright Act of 1976,  “work made for hire” is— (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101). Work-for-Hire typically implies that any work created by a graphic designer as an employee of Company A, remains the property of Company A, not the designer. Occasionally Graphic designers are commissioned to perform Work-for-Hire but at a substantially higher rate (usually 300%) and when the terms and conditions are mutually agreed to in writing.

An Independent Contractor is commissioned because the work requires significant artistic skill. The Designer supplies her/his own tools, performs the work at her/his own office, works for a relatively short time on a project-to-project basis, and controls when, how or how long he/she works. Typically, in this arrangement, the client has no part in the Designer’s business practices, does not provide the Designer with employee benefits or contribute to his/her unemployment or worker’s compensation, and most importantly to Uncle Sam, the client does not treat the Designer as an employee for tax purposes. Independent Contractors work where they want, when they want, how they want and with whom they want. They pay self employment taxes and foot the bill for health insurance, technical maintenance, tools required for the trade, and provide a valuable service to their clients.

So, “why aren’t master files supplied to me, the client? That’s what I am paying for, right?” The short answer is no and here’s why:

© Fotolia_2734156

1. You’re paying for the final product, not the tools to create that product.

When you contract a professional graphic designer to create and deliver a brochure, that’s what you will get for your money, a fully completed, fully thought out printable (or printed) brochure. You are not paying for the history, tools or layers used to create that brochure nor are you paying for the fonts and images contained within it. Think of it this way: if you went to the hardware store to buy a drill, you pay the cashier for the drill to take home and use as-is, not for the manufacturing trade secrets, right to the mechanicals and mechanisms or for the rights to take that drill, remove the brand sticker, replace it with your brand sticker and sell it to the public for profit.

copyright symbol

2. There are third parties involved that you may be unaware of.

Every designer uses fonts, photos and graphic elements that are often the works of someone else. Designers spend a good amount of money (font licenses can cost anywhere from $25 to $600) purchasing licenses to multiple typefaces in order to offer you options that maybe you don’t already have and to create the perfect overall look for your collateral. We spend our capital to have access to stock imagery that must be purchased for use in your collateral. These tools are not our property but are the property of their respective creators, we have simply secured the right to use it to provide you with awesome designs. Because of this, it would be unethical and illegal for Designers to release those tools to you as we are not the copyright holders.

© iStock_000006823591

3. You likely don’t have the hardware or software to handle or manipulate the master files.

Graphic files can be very large and what I can open and manipulate with a fair amount of quickness with my heavy-duty machinery, could slow your equipment down to snail speed. Assuming that you have the proper software and can open the document, what are the chances you know what to do with it afterwords? Do you know how to change the text, what color space and resolution to use, how to format it for different mediums or how to collect it for submission to printers or vendors? There is a whole host of technical junk Graphic Designers have to learn and use everyday. We’ve already put in the time to learn the ins and outs, the technicalities and techniques, so why not just let us handle it and save yourself the headache?


4. We worry about issues with file types.

As designers we often keep track of multiple proofs, files and file types. For example, I may have a high res psd or tif file that I use for the artwork, a indd file I use for the text and layout, various files for import into InDesign, a few low res pdfs of various revisions, a high res pdf with trim marks for an offset printer, a high-res pdf without trim marks for another printer, a high res pdf with half-inch margins for in-house, inkjet printing, a low res jpg for web, and possibly several more. I know the specs, color space, technicals and use for each of these files and can easily send the one needed to various vendors if need be. What many designers worry about is that a client with all the files will erroneously and unknowingly send the wrong file, causing a headache for the client, the vendor and the original designer as usually we’re the ones who have to step in and remedy the situation. Also an issue is that if a layered file is supplied to a vendor who doesn’t have the same fonts or embedded images, the formatting and typeset can go very askew (i.e. the font will automatically change to a default font, ruining any formatting and the images will either show up as grey boxes or in low resolution and will not print properly), turning our hard work into a mess and making life harder for the recipient of the file and causing undue upset to the client.


5. If you have the software and technical know-how, why do you need a freelancer?

The simple answer to this is that most people don’t have the specific skill-set and/or talent to do the work or that they simply don’t have the time. If you are hiring a designer simply because you don’t have the time and are looking for someone to collaborate with, then the work is considered work-for-hire and would be handled as mentioned above. Similarly, if you are hiring a design professional for their creative and technical talents with the intent to use them for the concept and initial execution but not for derivative or future works of the concept, with the purpose of making future changes yourself, you would need to work out a Work-for-hire agreement between yourself and the creative. Unfortunately, many designers face the sad fact that there are people out there who want to pay them for a stellar concept without being completely forthcoming with their intentions, then secretly hand off that concept to a novice or cheaper designer to save money. Since the original designer has done all the hard work already, the second designer gets to reap the recurring financial benefits of that design for doing little work. It’s unethical and unfair to the professional designer. Of course, if this is stated up front by the client, most designers will negotiate an additional fee or higher hourly rate to complete the work for another designer to take over. In this case, it is Breakaway Graphics, LLC’s practice to require the client to purchase all fonts, elements and photos used in the design and stipulate that once the files have been released, we are held harmless of any warranties with the design.

If you are working with a designer and would like to obtain rights to their layered/master files, just ask. Most designers won’t have an issue negotiating a price for the transfer of full copyright including layered files and are more than willing to help you secure the various image and font licenses to protect yourself from violating a third-party’s copyright. The industry standard for copyright transfer is 300% of the total bill so if you’ve used your designer for letterhead and business cards that totalled $200 in design fees, be prepared to offer him/her about $600. This will cover the loss of future income for the designer from those designs as well as the time it will take him/her to collect and prepare the documents for sale and aid you in securing licenses. If you are working with a designer who flat out refuses to release copyright without one of the above valid reasons, find a new designer.





  • Hi George! I wish I could tell you, however I am not an expert on IP law. In my opinion it would depend entirely on any employment contract you may have between you he. I would take a closer look at it (if you have one) or consult an IP attorney of some sort. If he was an an employee, you may be able to find valuable information through the IRS since independent contractors or work for hire contractors are usually treated differently than employees and may shed some light on how items created while under employment should be handled. But again, this is out of my realm of expertise. I’m sorry I cannot offer any concrete advice on this particular situation. Although, for any other readers out there who may be reading through the comments, this is a great example on why contracts that stipulate IP rights and employment are essential for both the designer and the client. Thank you for sharing!

  • You are very welcome! Please keep us posted on how this turns out….everyone’s stories here are valuable to the entire design community!

  • Personally, I don’t see an issue with supplying them with the PDFs. Here at Breakaway Graphics, our clients are allowed to secure any kind of printing they choose (and if they choose to use an outside vendor, that would mean they would need the print files). It is our policy that the deliverables are what the client pays for…in some cases that’s an actual printed piece and in some cases that’s a printable file. I say this, however, knowing that our policy of not up charging on printing (and instead charging for our time to facilitate the printing) is not the norm. In your case, it would depend on how you’ve chosen to set up your business and how you and your client have decided to handle IP. If it were me, I would supply them with a print ready file with no modification rights.

  • Matt Warmack says:

    Our graphic artist goes out on maternity leave (Let’s Call #A). She suggests a different person to fill in (Let’s Call #B). She (#B) does a layout of text, photos, and logos I’ve created and paid for their rights from past vendors (Let’s Call #XYZ). I own absolutely everything and have provided her with everything including the style guide. She (#B) is also using the branding guidelines I’ve paid #A to develop. Graphic Artist #A comes back and years go by. Graphic Artist #A has third baby and retires. We realize that the two files #B has created won’t be released to our new Graphic Artist (Let’s Call #C). I have paid $10,000 of thousands of dollars creating my brand and just need the two raw files for designer #C to speed up the process and not retype 20 pages of text.

    Graphic Artist C just signed a release for all work now and in the future.

    Graphic Artist B will never get a dime of my money in the future. Poor choice in my opinion.

  • This a great perspective to add to this conversation, Matt! Thank you very much for adding to this discussion….it’s very valuable for ALL points of view to be understood.

  • Matt Warmack says:

    When you use freelancers as I have over the last 20-ish years … freelancers disappear often as they get full time jobs, move away from town, getting married & have babies, etc … and if they disappear on you and you don’t have the original files the new graphic artist can’t take over as easily or as cheap. I’ve spent $10,000’s of thousands getting to where I’m at with my company’s marketing. I’ve never let one single graphic artist freelancer go but I have had all of my freelancers disappear after a couple of years every single time. I’m paying on average $70/hour to $100/hour so these are talented people that I’m paying a fair price for their services. I just need the files as everyone disappears in time – everyone. I’m still here running my small business acting as the Marketing Project Manager that I pay freelancers in writing, design, photography and after this recent experience will never hire someone without a Work For Hire and the full files at the end of every job. My perspective.

  • Yes! A work for hire agreement would be an excellent place to start. You’ve clearly been doing this a while….which is why your input here is so important…it’s a bit of a learning process for all involved (especially for small-businesses, designers included). My hope here is to help people wade through these topics without having to learn the ‘hard way’ on either side 🙂

  • Phil says:

    Complete propaganda. Any professional graphic designer will send you source files without a fuss or charge. I’m a ghostwriter and I would NEVER dream of (or get away with) sending my client un-editable files at the end of a project. The analogy that the client is not paying for the tools. just the work, is complete garbage. We aren’t asking for the InDesign program; we are asking for the files we paid you create.

  • Thank you for the comment, Phil, it’s very appreciated! I can assure you as a professional graphic designer who has methods in place for the release of intellectual property including editable files, that few professional designers will release master files without compensation. The practice of additional fees for such a request is in fact backed by all the professional design associations. Feel free to read through the comments or visit the AIGA’s website for documentation. While each designer is free to chose how to handle this themselves, it would be entirely incorrect to state that freely releasing master files is the norm for design. Thank you for taking the time to comment as this post was meant to be educational and when it comes to education, it is important to have input from all sides! 🙂

  • Pat says:

    I’ll bet a million dollars Phil is a client (possibly a writer who hired a graphic designer) and is frustrated the designer won’t give him the native files.

    Phil probably got hired to write something for someone and needed a designer to bring it to life. Phil is now at the revision phase. Phil doesn’t want to pay said designer for revisions since it’s largely copy edits and feels he can do it himself.

    Phil probably wants to be able to counter the designer’s opposition to providing him the natives file and Googled something of-the-like “my designer won’t give me the files” and stumbled onto this blog hoping to find an argument in his favor.

    But Phil, there is none since there is no inherent right to the native files. You buy the meal—not the recipe.

  • “You buy the meal—not the recipe.” YUP!!

  • Linda says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been in a sticky situation before. It’s hard to justify the cost of digital files. I usually include the cost of the files with my design work, which is not much more.

    But after reading this, I will definitely reconsider how I bill / charge clients my files.

  • Bryan says:

    Thank you for making this very easy to understand. I’m going to explain this to my clients in a similar fashion. They’re always asking and when I try to explain I keep on stumbling on the technical stuff like “We use specific formats that not everyone can use and converting them to another format takes time and…” by that time the client has lost interest and just says ‘just give me the files”.

  • Bryan says:

    Also, I was glancing through the comment that George made, and it made me think about the same thing. I did some searching and I found this: https://www.graphicartistsguild.org/tools_resources/can-i-show-my-work-in-my-portfolio-when-i-dont-own-the-rights-anymore
    If George does come back, this might be helpful for him to look over and verify if the artist is using those files just for the portfolio or for something else.

    I also was talking to a client for a local large candy business once about how he said that a secretary left and took a bunch of contacts and started her own candy company. The secretary then started selling her candy to the same people, getting them to stop selling to the original client! The client I spoke with said he was able to take her to court for stealing IP for her own to profit from.

  • mediumstudio says:

    Its funny when a client asks if they can have the template I used for their work so they can update things themselves – an honest request – but it just happened and got me thinking about my actual files. Great article here!

    A client pays for the end result. Providing native files allows a client access to your hard work and years of research with typography. I know that typeface ‘A’ works great at such and such a size with a this variance of leading. That’s very valuable knowledge capsulated in your native design files (as well as your grid, margins, workspace, etc.). I’ll be adding in language about native files in my proposal/contracts!


  • jy says:

    I just finished typing an email to a client and used the same meal/recipe analogy. Ironically, the client is a baker and I used the following explanation regarding the request for digital files when the original agreement was a framed, printed piece of art.

    “In terms of something you’re familiar with, here’s a better analogy. You bake, design, and sell cupcakes, cakes, and cake pops. Your clients order from you, you create the item and sell a finished product – a cake. You don’t, however, provide them with the recipe nor the instructions on how to create the cake. Or maybe you do. But in that case, it would be your choice. In general, I would assume you sell only the cake product itself and not the recipe and ingredients to create the cake. In short, my framed print is one of your cakes. The source or digital files you are asking for are the recipe. See where this is going?”

    I even referenced this site: http://losangeles.aiga.org/does-a-designer-have-to-turn-over-source-files-when-a-client-asks-for-them/

    In good faith, I offered a flattened PDF of the finished product so she could do as she pleases with it. I was avoiding the bad blood that would likely result had I not offered. I just hope my explanation will make her realize the rights we have as creatives! Especially, given she is a creative herself.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Great example with the bakery and cake! Thank you for contributing!

  • NG says:

    How about if you have some copyright designs that need a correction ( in my case specifically the template of the box, needed to be corrected) so I said, reproduce this design exactly and naturally you provide all the elements: The template, the graphic, the logo, and fonts to re create a design that already existed and registered since I created. I was honestly surprised when this guy say no i will keep that. Why? is not like I gave him a concept, then he created. He simply reproduce a copyright design. In this particular case i am in the legal right, to ask for it?

  • Rod Ellis says:

    You can give away anything you want but that doesn’t mean that’s what everyone else should do. You hold your own professional line. For me, I’ve spent a lot of time, and invested a lot of money in equipping myself to deliver high-quality work, and I’m very happy for people to buy my cakes …

  • Neil says:

    Genuinely surprised at some of the comments and thought process that clients deserve the native files. That’s a joke.

    Matt – Just because you work with multiple freelancers doesn’t mean they need to share their files together. That’s bad practice. If your new designer can’t figure a way around “retyping” 20 pages of text, you need to find someone more resourceful and more experienced to get it done for you.

    Phil – Propaganda? You obviously are new to freelancing. You pay for the end result. I wouldn’t expect my plumber to give me all of his tools when he’s done with his job. Common sense.

  • Annie says:

    What are your thoughts on this situation:

    A company needs a sign made. They give the sign company their logo as a flat file. The company doesn’t have a vector version- so the sign company offers to make it a vector image for a $100 “design fee”

    When company later asks for vector image of their logo they paid to have made- Sign company wants to charge another $175 to release a design they did not create, but copied and turned into a vector image.

    Does this fall under justifiable in your opinion?

  • Thank you for your comment! Hmmmm, if it were me (I have had to convert many, many flat logo files in my day), the fee requested would likely have covered the conversion and release. I should note that I always release the vector files when I do a logo anyway because, when it comes to a logo, the vector file IS the final deliverable. Also the final fee includes the time it takes to produce the additional file types and to transfer the zip file or create a disk/flash drive. In the case of having to convert a file, the time required depends, of course, on the original design and the method chosen to covert it (by hand/rebuild or using a automatic conversion helper tool). It is possible that if the sign company’s time wasn’t covered by what sounds like a standard, standing fee, they may be asking for the additional monies to cover the time it took them. I would maybe ask them if that is the case. Let us know how it works out!

  • Ian says:

    My biggest issue with giving away native files is the integrity of the work. If you or your agency has created a look/feel that for instance is in your portfolio. Or people in the area/industry know you created. Well then once a client gets a hold of it and starts spewing out hot trash with your name on it, it does not look well for you or your work.

    You don’t go to a restaurant and pay for a meal expecting the list of ingredients and cooking instructions.

  • Ian says:

    I did not see the cake reference, but my thoughts exactly.

    If it is something that is discussed up front or in the contract then sure you can have the working files. Therefore you would be charged for a working “template”. You don’t have “x” created for you and then after ask for the working files. If it’s a one of project, then it’s not as big of a deal. But when that working file is used over and over again and is a direct reflection of your original work. That’s where the real issues for me come in.

    9 times out of 10 you give the client the working files and they don’t understand why an inDesign file won’t open in word. Or they purchase inDesign then don’t know how to manipulate anything. It ends up coming back to you as a new job.

  • Exactly…100% agree! Thanks for the comments!

  • Ella says:

    We hired a freelance to redesign our logo and stationary templates. When we went to the printer to have the biz cards printed, he said the resolution wasn’t high enough so he needed to recreate the biz cards for printing. We paid him for layout and design fees. But take note, the design wasn’t his, he just had to recreate it so he has a higher resolution file. As we went along very minor tweaks were made (we told him to make logo a bit smaller, move fonts a bit to the left, etc.) which we paid for as well.

    Now the printer is charging us way more for every business card we run so we want to use a different printer. Can we get the raw files from him given that it wasn’t his design in the first place?

  • This is a tough one to answer since in the case of the printer, it’s not about the design per se but about the tools used to create and then re create the design. The printer, even though he merely mimicked the original design (which may or may not be an infringement on the original creator’s agreement), still owns the tools that built it (in this case the printer created the files that got printed, those working files are theirs, even if the design is not). So, it comes down to paying the printer for the work performed and the final product, not for the files themselves, same as with any independent contractor. It sounds like your best bet is to simply ask for the files. You never know, they may freely release them, release them for a one-time price, or not release them at all. Let us know how it works out!

  • Bridget says:

    Please please help – My sister runs her own (very small food company, she has produced two cake mixes and a granola bar. She had already designed and organised her own packaging but when she managed to get product into some shops she knew she would have to get better packaging. She knew exactly what she wanted so supplied 95% of the ideas to the GD she hired. The GD charged £850 per mix & £500 for bar wrap. My sister was paying for the GD to pull it together really as she knew exactly what she wanted re style, colours, fonts etc. Anyhow she has some more products she wants to start selling, so she contacted her GD and her GD said it would cost her £850 again for each product. My sister explained that she only needed some amendments to the template, ie product name, change of background colour, and that surely her GD could not charge full price again. Her GD would not budge at all, so she asked other local GD’s for advice. They told her that she was correct and that GD should only charge an hourly rate for any changes. She went back to her GD again and again she would not budge at all. She knows my sister does not have the budget (its just her in her kitchen making recipes!) so my sister pleaded with her, to no avail. My sister then asked for the files back, and the GD said no way (not even for a small fee, like other GD’s said they would do) My sister is really struggling with what to do next and is so desperate for help. Her GD only has 6 clients (one is my sister and another client is one that my sister referred to the GD) She keeps emailing the GD pleading with her. The GD said she won’t give them to her (they are no good to the GD as my sister will not be working with her again), what can my sister do? My sister did not see or sign anything in relation to copywriting, T’s & C’s, work hire agreement. Please please can anyone help???? Thank you in advance

  • Hi Bridget! Thank you so much for reaching out! Let me start by saying I truly feel for your sister; this is never a situation any small business owner wants to find themselves in. While I agree with the other designers she polled (that the updates should be handled hourly), it’s the right of every designer to choose how they handle their billing and work relationships. If that’s the policy of the designer, unfortunately, it sort of is what it is. Also, not that this helps in the least at this point, but as I am sure you’ve read form the various comments, it is always IMPERATIVE to have a working contract and to discuss these things up front. The good news (if you can call it that) is now your sister will know what to ask on the next go-around. That being said, since there isn’t a contract executed, I would think that her best avenue is to hire a new designer to have them start from scratch. I know that’s not what anyone wants to hear but it doesn’t sound like this particular designer wants to budge and I tend to look at things in a time-spent kind of way (admittedly not how everyone would see it, just my opinion). She could spend an immense amount of time fighting it out with the designer or time and money in court and because there’s no contract or scope-of-work documented, it could go either way. (I’m not a lawyer so how a judge would see it is beyond me.) I might suggest looking into Tradedress laws and possibly contacting an IP attorney; there may be wiggle room there but I couldn’t be 100% sure. I’m sorry I don’t have the ‘save-the-day’ answer for you….perhaps one of the others on this thread and offer some additional advice?

  • coco says:

    In my years of freelancing, I’ve not come across this issue until recently when one of my client requested for the master file. I was contemplating whether to give or not to give and googled about it, that it when I stumbled upon your article. It was really helpful. Thank you.

    Would appreciate a little guidance on how to word the master file copyrights under the clause in my quotation in order to save myself in the future just in case the same thing happens again.

  • Hi Coco!

    Thank you so much for sharing….I’m happy to offer my opinion 🙂 I use materials and verbiage from the AIGA in my contracts. It’s full of wonderful and valuable resources!

  • coco says:

    Thanks for the reply. The link was indeed very informative.

    The best I could find / extract from (under the topic freelancing – AIGA Standard Form of Agreement) but yet it does not says anything about the masterfile copyrights. Hope you help me out on this.

    ‘Final Works / Deliverables:
    Upon completion of the Services, and expressly con-ditioned upon full payment of all fees and costs due, Designer hereby grants to Client the exclusive, perpetual and worldwide right and license to use, reproduce and display the Final Works solely in connection with the Project as defined in the Proposal. Any additional uses will require separate pricing. All other rights, including Copyrights, are reserved by Designer.’

  • You are very welcome! Look for a section called SCHEDULE A (pages 50-62 of the AFA….make sure you read the notes on page 20 before hand). You would use one of the options (there are four you can choose from) in this section to stipulate rights to final art in your contract. In addition, you may also add sections from the CONDITION SPECIFIC Section (starting on page 64) for additional detail a client may want or need. Keep me posted!

  • Argos says:

    I don’t send source/master files. I tell the clients from the very beginning that I will give them the final design in JPEG or PDF. I once gave a client the PSD file and then started seeing my design all over the place with modifications. The client took the PSD to a print shop and they kept it or made a copy and started using it as a template for their own use. It was not a very complex design so it didn’t bother me as much, but I’m sure as heck not doing that anymore. If the clients say they’ll want the source files I tell them to go look for another designer. If you’re good you won’t have problems getting new customers.

  • I had this happen on numerous occasions early in my career and no matter how basic the design, it’s still a rather large annoyance. Good for you for standing your ground!