Copyright Transfers: Do You Really Own The Rights To Your Logo Design?

How do you know if you really own the copyright to your logo design?

Since attending Alt Summit back in January and speaking with an IP lawyer during the roundtable sessions, I learned valuable advice to an issue that, up until that point, I had not even seen as an issue. I also recently joined the San Diego AIGA and have been focused on aligning my business with their professional standards and Design Business Ethics.

In light of these events, I wanted to share my personal story in hopes that it will help you know if your designer’s copyrighted work was transferred to you or not. Be sure to read all the way down, as I list resources for you to use!

Note: It is the designer’s choice to determine if they’d like to give their clients either full rights, partial rights, or no rights to their work’s copyright depending on what is being designed, although it’s strongly encouraged for identity design to be fully transferred to the client.

My Current System

Up until now, I had always written in my Terms of Design that clients receive full rights to the design work they receive. Even when they fill out my Logo Design Brief or Web Design Brief, they have to mark a check box for agreeing with these terms. In my Terms, I also make sure to state that I will not use their designs on a someone else’s design project, another benefit to having rights to your designs.

And to me, I thought this was legally good enough: letting them know and not pursuing claims against them in this light. Giving full rights to my clients, while holding on to my rights to use any work I create for portfolio and promotional use only, is just a personal preference of mine. I haven’t had any problems or reasons to change this business policy and it seemed natural to do so mostly because I deal in brand design. All was well in Designer Land…

My Legal Advice

…that is, until I learned from my talk with the IP lawyer at Alt Summit that this was not good enough! I still owned all rights to my work and not my clients.

After recovering from a mild heart attack that I cooly kept from showing though my ghost white face probably gave it away, I asked him how should I proceed and he said I needed a more formal document drawn up that both parties would need to sign and date to make this legal. Having a check box one document and the terms on another was not good enough in the court system, it needed to be condensed into a single release form. The good news was it was easily correctable.

My clients had nothing to fear with this small hiccup, because as previously stated, I only have interest in being able to use my designs for portfolio and promotional use but I’m still correcting the issue because it’s “better late than never”. Registering their logo to be trademarked or having it copyrighted, would require them having full rights to their designs. Having the paperwork to back up their statements, makes both parties able to sleep well at night.

Note: Any work that was meant for on-going, exclusive marketing purposes should have full rights transferred to the client with the exception of portfolio and promotional use on behalf of the designer.

My Next Steps

As soon as I had saved up enough money over the next several weeks, I contacted my lawyer to draw up the necessary paperwork for me. I’m in the business of working with businesses so I didn’t want to risk doing this myself. Copyrights, Trademarks, and Intellectual Property are all things I have to be aware of on a daily basis because of the nature of my job. I also made sure to have my lawyer give a good polishing to my Terms of Design so it would correlate with the new Copyright Release Form.

Additional Resources

If you’re not a fan of mini heart attacks either and want to be “Copyright Happy”, check out these links below for more information on copyright transfers and the tools to get the job done!



  1. Moxie Lisa says:

    Great post Kristen! I had a lawyer go through the project agreement a few years ago and it was super helpful. A lot of things I didn’t think about for myself and the client. Great resources!

  2. Geri says:

    What a great post! Having just completed logo designs for 3 recent clients, this (along with the fabulous links) have come in really handy! I, too, thought I was covered by my (what I thought) fairly comprehensive (and somewhat litigious & tedious) terms & conditions… but, this has really shed some new light on that.

    Thanks so much!

    • Jessika says:

      Thank you for asking @WhimsyCouture I am not sure how Kristen feels about having her image pinned on Pinterest given their current TOU (I’ll check with her) but feel free to pin our logo & give a short summary of the post as the image description so you can find it again & share with you community. Please do feel free to share on FB, Twitter etc:)

  3. .tif says:

    I think the best reference book I have (and one I feel has saved me money in hiring a lawyer) is the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook. There is a wealth (literally) of legal help & guidelines & documents for creatives of all types—graphic designers, illustrators, web designers, video editors, comic book artists, etc. The only downside is it doesn’t come with a PDF of these verbose documents … so if you want to create your own with your branding, you sort of have to type it all up yourself.

    AIGA is definitely another good resource, and I believe they have downloadable documents you can make your own as well.

  4. Kunvay says:

    It was really helpful to read about your experience managing copyright transfers to clients. Was wondering if you’ve ever charged clients more for having full copyrights versus having an implied licence to use your work? We’re helping creatives, freelancers and their clients manage copyright transfer and assignment online, and are curious about your experience associating copyright transfer with increased payment.

  5. Jane Pellicciotto says:

    It is standard practice that the client gets full rights of ownership of a logo because, to do otherwise, would obviously hamstring them from doing what they need to do. Most designers state this explicitly in their contract and tie it to receiving final payment. However, that’s also why logo design work has a comparatively higher fee than similar work; the built-in added value.

    Which brings me to another point, because a client is paying for your services, and not the rights to the tangible end product, to transfer over rights without any additional fee is bad business for you (and creatives all around).

    For every client that has no need of the original source files for, say, a brochure, another client might want to change it and update it and get more mileage out of it. That means it carries a much higher value for the client who wants to reuse it over and over. To transfer rights automatically, without a fee, sets up a a precedent that the source files have no special value, which they very much do.

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