Master Files

Why Master Files are not included with the Deliverables

I’ve found over the years that there is some confusion from my clients as to what they’re paying for. I found this article which expresses my thoughts about the subject.

By: Sheana Firth
Breakaway Graphics, LLC

Often, in design, there are requests by the client to release the layered, master files. Many clients feel a bit peeved when their designer tries to explain that the master files are not included in the final price and are not considered part of the Final Deliverables. Perhaps they are right to feel this way based on a misunderstanding of the profession and the assumption that the price they pay is for the rights to the master artwork. One of the roles designers play is to educate the client (or public) about many things, one of these things being why Master files are not always part of the deal. In an attempt to to clear up misconceptions, I’ve detailed the main reasons behind why master files are not considered part of the package for many freelancers.

First, we should resolve the difference between work performed by an Independent Contractor versus Work-for-Hire. According to the United States Copyright Act of 1976, “work made for hire” is— (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101). Work-for-Hire typically implies that any work created by a graphic designer as an employee of Company A, remains the property of Company A, not the designer. Occasionally Graphic designers are commissioned to perform Work-for-Hire but at a substantially higher rate (usually 300%) and when the terms and conditions are mutually agreed to in writing.

An Independent Contractor is commissioned because the work requires significant artistic skill. The Designer 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 Designer with employee benefits or contribute to his/her unemployment or worker’s compensation, and most importantly to Uncle Sam, the client does not treat the Designer as an employee for tax purposes. Independent Contractors work where they want, when they want, how they want and with whom they want. They 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.

So, “why aren’t master files supplied to me, the client? That’s what I am paying for, right?” The short answer is no and here’s why:

1. You’re paying for the final product, not the tools to create that product.

When you contract a professional graphic designer to create and deliver a brochure, that’s what you will get for your money, a fully completed, fully thought out printable (or printed) brochure. You are not paying for the history, tools or layers used to create that brochure nor are you paying for the fonts and images contained within it. Think of it this way: if you went to the hardware store to buy a drill, you pay the cashier for the drill to take home and use as-is, not for the manufacturing trade secrets, right to the mechanicals and mechanisms or for the rights to take that drill, remove the brand sticker, replace it with your brand sticker and sell it to the public for profit.

2. There are third parties involved that you may be unaware of.

Every designer uses fonts, photos and graphic elements that are often the works of someone else. Designers spend a good amount of money (font licenses can cost anywhere from $25 to $600) purchasing licenses to multiple typefaces in order to offer you options that maybe you don’t already have and to create the perfect overall look for your collateral. We spend our capital to have access to stock imagery that must be purchased for use in your collateral. These tools are not our property but are the property of their respective creators, we have simply secured the right to use it to provide you with awesome designs. Because of this, it would be unethical and illegal for Designers to release those tools to you as we are not the copyright holders.

3. You likely don’t have the hardware or software to handle or manipulate the master files.

Graphic files can be very large and what I can open and manipulate with a fair amount of quickness with my heavy-duty machinery, could slow your equipment down to snail speed. Assuming that you have the proper software and can open the document, what are the chances you know what to do with it afterwords? Do you know how to change the text, what color space and resolution to use, how to format it for different mediums or how to collect it for submission to printers or vendors? There is a whole host of technical junk Graphic Designers have to learn and use everyday. We’ve already put in the time to learn the ins and outs, the technicalities and techniques, so why not just let us handle it and save yourself the headache?

4. We worry about issues with file types.

As designers we often keep track of multiple proofs, files and file types. For example, I may have a high res psd or tif file that I use for the artwork, a indd file I use for the text and layout, various files for import into InDesign, a few low res pdfs of various revisions, a high res pdf with trim marks for an offset printer, a high-res pdf without trim marks for another printer, a high res pdf with half-inch margins for in-house, inkjet printing, a low res jpg for web, and possibly several more. I know the specs, color space, technicals and use for each of these files and can easily send the one needed to various vendors if need be. What many designers worry about is that a client with all the files will erroneously and unknowingly send the wrong file, causing a headache for the client, the vendor and the original designer as usually we’re the ones who have to step in and remedy the situation. Also an issue is that if a layered file is supplied to a vendor who doesn’t have the same fonts or embedded images, the formatting and typeset can go very askew (i.e. the font will automatically change to a default font, ruining any formatting and the images will either show up as grey boxes or in low resolution and will not print properly), turning our hard work into a mess and making life harder for the recipient of the file and causing undue upset to the client.

5. If you have the software and technical know-how, why do you need a freelancer?

The simple answer to this is that most people don’t have the specific skill-set and/or talent to do the work or that they simply don’t have the time. If you are hiring a designer simply because you don’t have the time and are looking for someone to collaborate with, then the work is considered work-for-hire and would be handled as mentioned above. Similarly, if you are hiring a design professional for their creative and technical talents with the intent to use them for the concept and initial execution but not for derivative or future works of the concept, with the purpose of making future changes yourself, you would need to work out a Work-for-hire agreement between yourself and the creative. Unfortunately, many designers face the sad fact that there are people out there who want to pay them for a stellar concept without being completely forthcoming with their intentions, then secretly hand off that concept to a novice or cheaper designer to save money. Since the original designer has done all the hard work already, the second designer gets to reap the recurring financial benefits of that design for doing little work. It’s unethical and unfair to the professional designer. Of course, if this is stated up front by the client, most designers will negotiate an additional fee or higher hourly rate to complete the work for another designer to take over. In this case, it is Breakaway Graphics, LLC’s practice to require the client to purchase all fonts, elements and photos used in the design and stipulate that once the files have been released, we are held harmless of any warranties with the design.

If you are working with a designer and would like to obtain rights to their layered/master files, just ask. Most designers won’t have an issue negotiating a price for the transfer of full copyright including layered files and are more than willing to help you secure the various image and font licenses to protect yourself from violating a third-party’s copyright. The industry standard for copyright transfer is 300% of the total bill so if you’ve used your designer for letterhead and business cards that totalled $200 in design fees, be prepared to offer him/her about $600. This will cover the loss of future income for the designer from those designs as well as the time it will take him/her to collect and prepare the documents for sale and aid you in securing licenses. If you are working with a designer who flat out refuses to release copyright without one of the above valid reasons, find a new designer.