Freelancers Guide to Intellectual Property

Working as a freelancer comes with plenty of benefits, but it also produces grey areas that aren’t always easy for entrepreneurs to navigate. Working as an employee for an organization means that all of your work belongs to the employer, but is the same true for freelance work? 

Where does the line between intellectual property begin and your client’s publications end? Is there such a thing as copyright protection for your work? There’s more to this debate than meets the eye. Here’s everything you need to know. 

Understanding Intellectual Property

Any creation of human intellect is considered intellectual property. These creations come with exclusive rights for the creator, allowing them to exploit and commercialize their work as they see fit. There are different types of intellectual property, however, that each come with varying levels of protection. 

Patents, trademarks, copyright, and industrial designs are all subsets of intellectual property that carry their own forms of protection. Within the context of freelance work, knowing the difference between the four is vital. 

The Big Four

A copyright protects a creator’s artistic craftsmanship. It can include literary works, pieces of art, music, or performing arts such as dance. The creator controls distribution and any type of adaption of their work. Anyone wishing to cite your work must also give proper attribution. 

Patents are saved for novel ideas, giving the creator exclusive rights to their invention. It allows the creator a monopoly on their invention for 20 years. If your freelance work entails working on someone’s idea, then your client retains the rights. That includes anything you come up with that is related to your work for them. 

Shape, ornamentation, and configuration are all protected by industrial design. This area of intellectual property deals with physical works and their aesthetic nature, not the object’s functionality. No one could claim the rights to a chair, but they could hold protections on a chair’s unique design. 

Trademarks deal with symbols and branded words. Graphic designers often fall into this protective category, so long as they are freelancing and not employed by a company. For all of the above, the creator must seek out legal protection for their work. You would need to register a copyrighted work, for instance.  

Who Retains Ownership

Unless otherwise stated, like in an employee contract, ownership belongs to the original creator of a work. As a freelancer, it is your duty to identify who holds the rights to intellectual property in order to avoid any confusion. 

When working with a client, you should include a clause about intellectual property in your contract. It needs to detail whether you or the client retains rights to the work as well as what happens when that work is transferred to the client. 

You also need to state any rights or obligation surrounding the work in question. Who owns the work in the future? Are any publication or duplication rights granted, and what can the client do in terms of future adaptations? Addressing these in the beginning of your business relationship is the only way to avoid unnecessary legal mitigation. 

Stacie