Client Relations – Who owns the project?

Who’s baby is this?

After all of your time and effort has been expended to create the final product, what does your client own? An which elements of the production, if any, is your client not entitled to receive as part of the deliverables?

The answer to these questions is dependent on two primary factors: What is in the contract, and what are the conventions of the industry.

If you are a for-hire professional, the understanding is that your client owns everything because they paid for you to do the work. You do not have any copyright interest or an expectation of a royalty if the work you produced is published in any way.

In some professions, like in professional photography, there is (or at least has been) a convention that the client owns the prints to all the photos, but the photographer keeps the negative. In the visual media profession, the understanding is that the client owns everything.

Well, almost everything….

What do you own?

At the conclusion of a project, your client is entitled to receive the final master plus all of the elements that were used as the ingredients for making it. The production elements would include:

  • recorded media
  • still images and other source files
  • graphic  animation elements
  • data discs from media generated through production
  • physical objects that were used in the production process that were purchased specifically for its use

What is missing from this list of production elements?

The missing element is the project file that you created in the process of producing the final master. Project files could be:

  • the files you created in Camtasia, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects, etc.
  • the databases that you generated to organize your material, such as a list for digitizing content or a data file that represents the editing decisions that you made.

The understanding behind this distinction is that a client owns the ingredients in the final product, but they do not own your “secret recipe” for producing the final product. The project files reveal how you did what you did and represents your distinctly creative way of achieving a particular outcome. Retaining your creative privacy is critically important to your viability as a creative professional in the industry. Anyone who understands how a project file was constructed would be able to deconstruct how you did what you did and either imitate or reproduce the type of work that you created, which puts you at risk for losing future business.

If your client has significant experience working in the media production business, they will have ascertained this understanding as a convention. If your client has never worked in a for-hire media production project before, it is possible that they may assume that they own everything including your exclusive project file. You may need to articulate this arrangement in advance (perhaps in the contract) if you sense that your client is new to this type of work.

Nevertheless, despite the conventional understandings in the media production industry, there are times when a client requires ownership of the project files in addition to everything else.

What do you do?

Client Relations Scenario

In this scenario, your client has stated from the outset of the job that they expect to receive all of the production elements, the final master, and your final project file. They state that they may want to make alternate versions of the final master on their own, in their own office with their own staff, so that they can save significant costs.

From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense from the client’s perspective. However, this clearly indicates that you will no longer be working on this project when future revision request occur. You do not want to lose the business opportunity that is in front of you, but at the same time, by agreeing to this request, you are going to lose future business on this particular project.

The project you are being asked to work on offers a decent profit, but it is not the kind of project you would put in your portfolio for prospective clients (it isn’t particularly interesting). And it is unclear exactly how much revision work would actually occur in the future. Prospects for future work with this client seem optimistic. You sense that if you comply with their request that you will continue to be hired for new work, but also under the same conditions where you must include your project file with all production deliverables.

How do you handle this situation?

Response

According to the scenario above, what are the variables you should be considering as you decide whether to comply with your client’s request or stand firm in your position that your project file is yours, exclusively?

What do you say to your client?

License

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Foundations in Visual Media Production by Steve Covello is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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