So you’ve just gotten a killer website/app designed. You can’t wait to launch it and start using it. But you’re also thinking long term…what if, in a few months, some of the information needs to be changed?

So you decide to ask the developer for the native or source files (i.e. the program that the file was originally built in, and is editable).

And they happily say…no.

Wait, what??

But you hired the developer, so you should get whatever files you want, right?

Or maybe, since you paid for the development work, you should outright own it?

As Stephen Colbert says, you can’t argue with that logic.

But these are common misconceptions that both website developers and clients alike fall prey to. Despite there being a robust debate on the web, there’s really only one correct answer.

I hate to break it to you,

but under Nigerian Copyright law, the designer automatically owns all rights to the work they do.

That’s right. All rights and ownership belong to the creator of the work (i.e., the developer). Automatically. They don’t have to do anything except…make stuff.

The one exception to this is work-for-hire, which basically means that if a developer is your full-time employee, then any work they create is yours. A freelancer, unless specifically stated in your/their contract, is NOT a work-for-hire.

So if the proposal or contract doesn’t specifically state that some or all of the rights will be transferred to you, you are only implied the right only to use the work or reproduce (host) it. And even that should be spelled out.

How does copyright=native files?

I had one client who was adamant about getting the native files for work I’ve done. I calmly explained to them how copyright works, and that although I don’t usually give the native files away, I’d be happy to do so for an additional fee.

This client was stunned. They claimed that all their other designers “didn’t have a problem” with giving up their native files.

Well, maybe they should.

According to AIGA, the professional association for design,

“copyright is the exclusive right to control reproduction and commercial exploitation of your creative work.”

So giving away native files automatically becomes a copyright issue.

Copyright actually refers to a bundle of rights.

There are 1) rights to display work, 2) rights to reproduce work, and 3) rights to make adaptations (derivative works).

Typically I give the first two to all my clients; I don’t care how often they display my work, or how many copies they have printed. What I normally don’t give away is the right to make changes. And the only reason to have native files is to make changes.

The common exception to this rule is for matters of brand identity, such as logo design (which the company will trademark as their own) or websites, which by nature must be updated frequently.


What’s the big deal?

The main reason why professional designers don’t give away their source files is because the client is paying for the final work, not the tools to make it. A lot of clients may think that access to native files should be included, and don’t see it as an extra thing.


The client is paying for the final work, not the tools to make it


But it is.

The best analogy I can think of is going out to dinner. I love traditional foods a lot. But when we pay #20000 for our Isi ewu, all we get is that one meal for that one visit. Can you believe it?

The price doesn’t include the chef coming out, giving us his recipe, utensils, and ingredients to take home, as well as a tutorial.

What a rip off.

Yet millions of people, everyday, happily go to restaurants and other service industries, where they get “ripped off,” yet expect something different when it comes to designers, even though it’s the exact same thing.

You, as the client, are paying for the delivery of the final design product. Nothing more, nothing less.

Another client I have completely understood this concept. I designed a handbook for them, and they inquired about getting the (source) files.

I explained how this would be an additional fee, and while they were understandably disappointed, they respected my position and didn’t argue the point further. A few months down the road, they were ready to purchase the native files and rights from me.

One last thing to consider, and I’ll quote from because this was so spot on :

An Independent Contractor is commissioned because the work requires significant artistic skill.

The Developer 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 Developer with employee benefits or contribute to his/her unemployment or worker’s compensation, and most importantly to Uncle Tunde, the client does not treat the Developer as an employee for tax purposes.

Independent Contractors 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.

Take a look again at all a freelancer does. I’m not trying to throw a pity party, the above is just factual, and should be compensated.

Because let’s face it; asking for source files is extra, not normal. So let’s stop normalizing it.


Have you ever run into a sticky situation involving copyright issues? How did you resolve it?

*LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A LAWYER. Any information presented here is what is readily available in the public sphere. Please do not contact me with questions about your specific case, I will tell you exactly what I tell everyone: ask a copyright lawyer. Saved you an email