“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.





  • nice information and blog very informative thank you . .

  • Very informative. I plan on saving this blog to show to our clients when they want layered files for ads we designed for publication in our magazine. Thank you for explaining it in layman’s terms.

  • numismatics says:

    That’s Right!…

    This is a really good blog. Good work!…

  • wow… i totally agree with “InsideTrack Almanac”. i will do the same. thanks for this article!

  • Chip payne says:

    Love it! You are exactly dead on with this, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered a customer who wants these files and they think they deserve them.

  • Thank you, Chip. I hear this request all the time and thought it would be helpful for other designers (and their clients) to have a detailed explanation on why Master Files aren’t always released. Thanks for reading!

  • Nice article, really well explain the relation between the client and the Web Design Agency.

  • Martin B says:

    Thank you so very much for this explanation it is a life saver.

  • Cool, a very interesting post!…

    [..] Today I was reading this fantastic blog post and I wanted to link to it. [..]…

  • Debra says:

    Thank you for this! Very informative post!

  • ian says:

    i don’t agree with your logic at all. If a company asks me for the master document i give them it. I could refuse and of course then they will go find another designer and you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.

    I don’t give them fonts and i don’t give them stock images because they aren’t my property to give. The final product however is.
    If they have problems with missing fonts i point them to the site it came from, same with stock art. If they cant open the document because they don’t have the software – again its not my problem – I make all this very clear when I accept a job so there are no problems later on.

    Im not sure what the logic is to want to hold on to your little pixels like scrooge? why do you need to do that? All you will do is have a nice collection of files with no use and no clients.

  • Thank you for your comment, Ian! Breakaway Graphics’ stance is to offer the layered files minus any third party fonts and/or images for a fee. The purpose of this post was to spell out some of the reasons designers worry about releasing their master files, not to say we designers shouldn’t ever release files if asked. The reasons listed are valid arguments that should be addressed by the designer and explained to the client…like in your example with the fonts and software (reasons 2 & 3 above). I am glad that you brought up making it clear from the start. In my contracts, for example, the terms of transfer are spelled out (i.e. third party images & fonts will not be released, that the recipient will be responsible for securing licenses to said elements, the documents will be provided in the format they were built, etc). Of course, every designer is different and it is up to them on how to handle the release of their files.

  • graphic designers2 says:

    great article. I couldn’t agree more. We have to charge for master files. Your client may ask the secretary (that knows a bit about photoshop) to play with the files for $12 an hour and of course, at this point the client loses all respect for your intellectual work. That’s a terrible scenario but if at least they paid for it then you’re covered.

    You mentioned on your last post “recipient will be responsible for securing licenses to said elements.” What do you mean by that?

  • Thanks for commenting and I totally agree! What I meant by “recipient will be responsible for securing licenses to said elements” is that any stock images or third party fonts used in a design may not be transferable under any licenses owned by Breakaway Graphics, LLC. I would want to make sure they also had legal rights to use an image or a font as well (I certainly don’t want to undermine the rights of the typographer or photographer!)

  • David says:

    Excellent blog! I have tried explaining this very thing to my clients. Would you mind if I linked this blog to my website for clients to view?

  • Thank you, David! Sure, we write to educate our clients and help other designers alike so you may feel free to link this post and direct any of your clients here when you feel it would help explain our (designers) stance on releasing layered files.
    Thanks for asking!

  • Jane says:

    I am self publishing a book. All the IP, photos, illustrations and drawings belong to me. I hired a freelance graphic artist to do the layout. Do I have the rights to that file?

  • Jane says:

    I should also make it clear that the GD has used no stock photos and only common fonts.

  • Hi Jane!

    Congratulations on becoming a published author, that’s quite an accomplishment! I would say that there is little doubt you would maintain the rights to authorship of any supplied Intellectual Property (the literary content / images or illustrations created by you) but whether you would have rights to the designer’s contributions (their master documents and any other files they may have needed to create to design your book) would be something you would discuss with your graphic designer. Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all definitive answer I can give you because it’s up to each individual designer how to handle the release of their files. If you have a contract, Rights to Final Art and Rights to Deliverables Other Than Final Art is likely part of it so it would probably be prudent to check that first. If it’s not (or if you do not have a contract), I would suggest getting in contact with your designer and see if you can come to an agreement regarding releasing the layered/master files. I would venture to say that most designers have a policy in place for the liquidation of their files and /or full license transfer & release and would be happy to shed some light on the subject; usually all you have to do is ask. Hope this helps a little….Best of luck to you, Jane!

  • Jane says:

    Thank you for your reply. I will let you know how it goes.

  • k says:

    An analogy would also be like when one hires a contractor to build a house and pays for all the services, client gets the house according to agreed specifications and requirements, to live in or do what s/he please with it, and work is done between the two parties. Paying the contractor does not mean the client owns the contractor’s tools in the process: the work plan/s, hammers, drills, saws, payloaders, paint brushes, etc.

  • Great analogy, K. Thank you for contributing!

  • Very helpful and thorough overview here. It’s a tricky question and fortunately one that does not come up too often. It’s a catch-22 when it happens though, do you dig your heels in a retain the native files (as is your right) but at the same time killing off all goodwill in the relationship? Or hand the files over, maintain the goodwill but give the client the tools to get the job done elsewhere? It’s difficult and, as has been said here, the only real answer to this is making clear exactly what is and what isn’t a ‘deliverable’ at the outset of the project.

  • Thank you for commenting, Redmill Marketing Associates! We’re always happy to hear from other designers!

  • Jeff says:

    Ian, you are clearly different than most dignified artists and designers. Please reserve the right to make your own choices, but realize the majority of artists, as well as copyright law, do not agree with your philosophies.

  • When I do a design and artwork for a product . The client pays lets say 7,000.00
    Then I charge for a copy of the digital information to send to his printer ie 200.00 .
    The client may ask for a copy as many times as they want .
    I retain the copy rights to the master digital file .
    The client buys the art right of use .
    The client has the right to make as many prints from the digital file but not alter it .

  • Just John says:

    I have just started a communications manager role (but have previously been a designer). My predecessor at work has hired a designer for a number of years to create a publication. We were never provided with the InDesign source files, and can understand why for the reasons you mention. I have noticed, however, that we have been charged (separately to the design costs) for the costs of purchasing the stock images used. As we have specifically paid for these, I feel I would be justified in requesting these stock image files (not the design files). What would be your thoughts on that matter please?

  • Hi John! Thanks for commenting!

    That’s a tough one. The way most stock services work, the person who has the account through which the images/graphics/etc are purchased owns the license to use said images. If the designer used his or her account to secure the rights to use the image, the designer is the licensed user, regardless of who actually paid for it (in your case, it sounds like your company reimbursed the designer for out of pocket expenses associated with the images). So even as logically, it would seem that because you reimbursed your designer for the images in particular, unless the stock service that the designer used allows for license transfer, the stock site itself (on behalf of the various photographers/illustrators) likely wouldn’t recognize you as a licensed user. You would be justified in asking that he or she look into the possibility of a license transfer through his or her stock service, though. I would also suggest looking at the contract your company has with the designer as well, it may have something in there about the use of stock photos, third party content and/or handling of out-of-pocket expenses. Many designers, for example, do not include the cost of stock images in their hourly/page/project rates and instead use the reimbursement method you described in an effort to keep the expenses associated with a given project transparent. Other’s view stock images as an operating expense that’s built into the rate like any other business overhead. Keep us posted…I am very interested in learning how this can be resolved as it’s a matter that leads to a lot of confusion on both the client’s and the artist’s part.

  • Shay says:

    thanks a lot for clarifying these out!!!

  • PrairieGirl says:

    After being in the design and graphic industry almost two decades, this is the very best explanation of what a client should expect to receive for their $s I’ve ever seen. Thanks a million for this very important information!

  • Sherry says:

    Question: If I quote $2000, for example, to a client for schematic drawings and only quote $200 for the layered file (so they can render it as they wish), what is stopping them from only purchasing the file for $200 and not the $2000 drawings? This is an ‘update’ job to previously created schematics that I provided 10 yrs ago. I have to send a quote and have a feeling they will only pay for the files because they are cheaper. They want a quote for the update and the file. How would I handle this?

  • Hi Sherry!
    Personally, I would quote the work’s value ($2,000) and then quote an additional price for releasing the files ($200).

  • So glad it found it helpful!

  • Sheila says:

    This was a great article, I’m dealing with this right now with a client…thanks to designers like Ian, clients are now being trained to expect/demand native files for nothing. He actually says, “you’re the only designer I’ve had who has a problem with this. Everyone else I’ve worked with gladly hands over the native files!” Nevermind that the AIGA and GAG frown on such a practice.

    It’s just like spec work. The more designers are willing to stoop to that level, the more clients will expect it, and the opposite it true. We need to retrain clients to respect our profession, and adequately compensate us for our time, talents, ideas, and work. And yes, that includes copyrights and ownership.

    PS I’m writing my own blog post about this, can I quote and link back to you?

  • Thanks for the comment, Sheila! I’m with you 100%; there has been a sharp decline in the value placed on designers (and their work) over the past few years. People will always be willing to work for less (or for free in the case of spec work: check out my blog post on that here) and who are so unaware of their value, they’s be willing to give away their tools. As professionals, we just have to stay the course and educate our clients on the value of good design. And yes, please feel free to quote me and link back. I’d be very interested on reading your thoughts too so be sure to leave a link here in the comments to your post!

  • Good article. Can you please provide support for this statement.

    The industry standard for copyright transfer is 300%


  • Sure thing, Robert! The AIGA Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services specifies 300% as the common amount (page 23). A general google search to research this topic prior to writing the article resulted in several firms who offer their terms on their websites as well as many forums where designers offered their practices as it relates to liquidation of rights; most of which specify “3 times” or “300%” the original contract (or project) price.

  • Perfect. Big thanks!

  • You are very welcome, Robert!

  • Jay says:

    Hi! Informative and relevant to me right now. I understand your points and accept them; however, in the case where the images and fonts are provided by the client, does that influence the extent of the client’s “rights” to the master files? The secondary “complication” to our particular scenario is that us, as clients, made clear from the start that we would like the master files as we sometimes have to make little changes – like a partner company altering their logo mid-project! – and the graphic designer never having said anything until the end when we ask for all the files and we’re slapped with the “industry practice” reasoning. Any comments on this particular scenario? I think our old graphic designers spoiler our organization, and now faced with a…younger agency…we find ourselves running out of patience faster. (Sometimes, admittedly, it may be our fault, but often it isn’t.)

  • Hi Jay! I can only speak to how Breakaway Graphics, LLC handles this sort of thing but it is our policy that client content remains property of the client. If images, illustrations, text, fonts, logos, etc are provided to us by a client, we simply use said elements under their license(s) for their projects exclusively. However, anything created by us, is considered our intellectual property. Which is seemingly the most likely case in your scenario so I suppose the answer to your question is: the content you provided probably doesn’t influence your rights to the designer’s files/tools. If you’ve been clear about wanting the master/editable files from the very beginning, I would agree that the designer should have said something about the terms/rights/fees for the transfer of copyright prior to your asking for the files. For example, in Breakaway Graphic’s contracts, the rights to client content, original artwork, third-party content, preliminary artwork, tools, final deliverables and terms for transfer (unlicensed use) are stated up front to avoid confusion later. Perhaps your particular designer simply didn’t feel the need to express the terms until the time you asked for the files; the fee(s) may depend on the amount of work (i.e. he/she may not have known how much to quote for a buy out if the amount is dependent on the original amounts of the various projects). I can understand your frustration completely, however it is up to the designer how he/she handles liquidation because the files created by him/her are considered intellectual property. My best advice is to open a line of communication to come to an agreement for liquidation/transfer that makes both of you happy. I hope this helps a little….please keep us posted; I am sure our readers would be interested to know how this matter was resolved.

  • JT says:

    Fantastic post -many thanks for your insight into this.

  • You are very welcome, JT!

  • Megan says:

    Isn’t it the case with any profession that what is being sold is the years of experience, the talents, the skills, and the ability to put together a particular product? I don’t pay a lawyer’s employment taxes or benefits, I pay an hourly rate. If I pay a lawyer an hourly rate to help me create a business, that doesn’t give the lawyer ownership rights to the business.

  • Yes, you pay an hourly rate based on experience, talent and skill (which does in fact incorporate his ‘cost of doing business’ like taxes and benefits of course…but that’s not really relevant…the biggest difference with this analogy is that in design we’re referring to our owning our intellectual property and tools. I suppose, using this comparison, the best way to relate it would be you paying the lawyer for a service but then wanting to own HIS books, knowledge and degree so that you can simply do it yourself next time. Again, like I said, it’s not the same kind of field so it’s difficult to draw a comparison but essentially, the same concept is there. So in this case, you paid a lawyer and got the end product, a business entity…just like you would pay a designer and get an end product,like a business card…the tools either used to deliver the end product are the property of the lawyer or designer, not the client. Hopefully that helps a little. Thanks for posting!!!!

  • Heather says:

    I’ve been freelance since 2008 and have had clients request the working files. Early on I would give in and then they would have to come back anyway after purchasing the working files and the software and then realize they have no knowledge what so ever of how to do the job.

    Now I write it in my contract that working files are not released except when negotiated for separately. If you’re working with a professional, ethical designer then they should be giving you this information up front in the form of a contract or terms.

    I think it’s completely reasonable not to deliver native files at all as well. As long as you’re up front about that in the beginning. This was a great explanation of this situation!

  • Hugo says:

    Hi! Thanks for your article, it’s very useful. I have a specific scenario that I would like to ask you about. A couple of years back my client commission from me a complete suite of corporate literature, amounting to about 25 different brochures, leaflets, posters, folders, stationery etc. The job included everything from initial concepts through to final printed copies. We have subsequently done various updates and reprints, as required. The client has now asked us to hand over all the hi-res PDFs and print specs, obviously with a view to printing everything themselves in the future. They have not asked for source files as yet. Can I reasonably charge for the hi-res PDFs since I will no longer be able to profit from the reproduction of my artworks? Thanks for your thoughts.

  • George says:

    I just recently terminated an employee of 4 years. A great graphic designer, but a miserable person. Lots of personal issues. Never happy, even after repeated bonuses. When he left, he copied files off his computer (no way to prevent it) and now has a website that advertises his graphic design resume using graphic design work he did with me as a paid employee. What is my recourse, if any?

  • Shavaughn says:

    Just wanted to say thank you for this informative article and all of the comments. They have been helping me to learn more about this since I am dealing with a client and this right now. This is the first client that has asked for the files and I know with this client that they are asking for them so that they can not have to use me any more. I have a gut feeling that the client will be cutting ties with me whether or not they have the files so I figure why not go for a higher price on the hard work I’ve done for them for the past four years? (it’s a guide that they ask me to update and change the layout of every year)