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One of the most common mistakes freelancers make is undervaluing their ownership over the work they create for clients. When and how you grant your client ownership over your Intellectual Property can have a huge impact on your career and your bank account.

Yes, you will have to learn a little legalese, but it’s crucial that you know your rights!

What is Intellectual Property?

Got a copy of the Constitution handy? Turn to Article 1, Section 8: Congress has the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

The forefathers just outlined that Intellectual Property rights reside with their owner for certain periods of time. Intellectual Property (IP) is intangible assets that are “creations of the mind,” such as artistic work, music, designs, symbols, and inventions. Recognize that unless you give them away, you are the sole owner of the creations of your own mind.

This is true even if the client pays you for your work! Money changing hands is not the same thing as Intellectual Property rights changing hands. If you never have a contract with a client, IP rights are yours.

Why is it important?

Your Intellectual Property is your livelihood. As a freelancer, different than an employee, your unique, self (not group)-created products are your own, and when you work for a client, they are paying you for the right to use your Intellectual Property. Hopefully this changes the frame of reference for those freelancers who view contract work as simply short-term employment; understanding that you are an individual agent can go a long way towards ensuring you are vigilant about what you do with the ownership rights of your work.

What your clients want

Most clients want exclusive and indefinite use of the Intellectual Property that you create for the project. Some even grab “future” rights not yet invented, but related to the project.

Freelancers should come together to dispute this kind of contract. According to Freelancers Union's founder Sara Horowitz, "Freelancers Union aims to drag these kinds of practices into the light, since changes in negotiating policy usually happen only if and when workers unite against them. We need to push for rights models that are legitimate and fair and not let industries extract all rights as the norm and pay less and less for them."

What you want & your options

Freelancers should always try to grant the minimum rights possible.

Best case scenario: Ideally, you would grant clients the right to use your Intellectual Property for a limited time, after which point they would no longer have the right to do so. (A clear schedule would be outlined.) You would retain ownership throughout. For example, this often happens informally with guest blog posts: you still own the work, but you give the hosting blog the right to post your content, and you are able to ask for the content to be removed at any time.

Why this is awesome:

  • This often means your name is attached to the public work, which is good for your career, can lead to organic referrals, and is “street cred” when someone googles your name.
  • If you want to use that content for further profit, you always have the right to. A pamphlet on tax rights that you gave limited rights to can be revised and republished for another client, which means you just made twice the income than if you’d given over the rights of your work to the first client.

Good case scenario: Grant ownership for a limited time, and make them pay for it. Explain to them that as the creator of the work, you will grant them ownership for an additional fee or percentage of the contract fee (like 5%). So even if you are freelancer in a line of work where Intellectual Property is usually taken by the client, by recognizing your ownership and educating your client, you can raise your income.

Always specify IP transfer times

Granting IP rights/ownership: Stipulate in your contract and in every draft you send to clients that the right to use your product is only granted upon full payment.

This can help provide an extra incentive to clients who are late on payments: letting them know they’re in breach of contract and violating IP laws (hopefully) freaks them out a bit.

Taking back IP rights/ownership: If you’ve granted ownership for a limited time, stipulate in your contract when rights revert back to you.

What happens if your IP is stolen?

If you give work to a client, they never pay you, and yet they use your work (which will happen if you freelance long enough), begin by addressing it with the client. Normally matters can be worked out this way. But if you get no response, reference this document put out by the Department of Justice’s Taskforce on Intellectual Property, which outlines exactly what you can do to protect and defend your IP rights.

Freelancers, how do you deal with IP rights in contracts?

Disclaimer: If you have any concerns about Intellectual Property rights, contracts, and claiming IP right violations, contact an attorney. This article is meant as an informational guide, not legal advice.