I’m getting started doing some freelance web design and front end development, and had a question about what is the norm for copyrights in the US.

When you create a custom web site for a client, do you:

1) Retain the copyright of the site, granting the client use of it for his business, but not giving him the right to transfer ownership, or limiting the modifications he can make?


2) Give client the whole shebang, with the ability to modify it as he wishes, sell it to the highest bidder, or anything else, with the designer retaining the right to use the original design as a portfolio piece?

Or something else entirely?

  • 1
    possible duplicate of Copyright on freelance work
    – Xavier J
    Apr 26, 2014 at 12:23
  • I read that, but it's talking specifically about development and programming, while I'm wondering about websites. The answer might be the same, but it isn't addressed in the linked question.
    – Karen
    Apr 28, 2014 at 14:14
  • It really doesn't make a difference whether it's development or web design. The crux of the matter is the fact that you are trying to figure out whether you are going to sell your work product (and relinquish copyright) or license it (and retain copyright).
    – Xavier J
    Apr 28, 2014 at 15:54

2 Answers 2


There are many variables.
In short words, you have to know how to licence your work and this should happen when you write the contract with the client.

Of course, there are many aspects of the problem you should consider:

  • Does the work contain parts over which your client has full copyright (logo, text, colors, design, source code, trademarks)?
  • What can you reuse in the future? Should this parts of your work be licensed under specific terms?
  • What exactly the client is willing to pay for? Should you give up all the rights for the work or the price the client pays covers only a limited licence which allows you to resell or reuse part of the work (idea, design, source code)?

No matter what the situation is, you should always consider this legal concern. Moreover, make sure your work doesn't defaults as the property of the client just because you were payed and asked to do the job (it happens in most of the cases).
Look, i found on internet a very good article which gives you a very good idea about how copyrighting works and the way you shuld handle this matter. Here is how it starts:

The moment a work is created in a tangible form, it immediately becomes the property of the author who created it. As soon as you draw that illustration, snap that photo, or write that article, it belongs to you. As owner of that work, you can license its use to another (and even restrict how it’s used), or transfer ownership entirely.

The exception to the above is “work for hire.” That’s when someone else hires you to take the photo or write the article; or when an employee creates a work within the scope of his or her employment. As a freelance designer or programmer, it’s important that your contract makes that distinction; otherwise, the work you perform could be deemed as “work for hire” in a court of law.

You can read more details here

My case?

I do web design as a freelancer.

  • The logo, color scheme, images, texts are copyrighted to the client. I don't have and don't exert any rights over what is property of the client.
  • The source code will always be under my copyright (I keep all the rights). The client can use the website (source code) as it is, bring changes or replace it with someones else work (with no limitations). What I never allow my clients do is to resell or reuse as part of some other products the source code over which I have (and exert) property rights (except plugins or other peaces I have the right to sell/re-sell as they are).
  • As mentioned above, I many times use the work of others as part of my product (plugins, images). I always make sure I have the right to use them as part of the product that I'm selling and I do not exert any property right over this parts (the client can do whatever he/she wants).
  • The copyright over the visual aspect (theme/template) is a complicated matter. Usually I try to be original and to avoid building websites visually similar. But, in the end, all of them have a navbar, header, sections, footer, some sliders and so on.

Controlling what happens with the source code after it was delivered to the client is very hard. For this reason, when I ask for a price I consider all the implications (including what can happen after I no longer have control over my work).


The question of whether you retain copyright or transfer/assign copyright to your client is more of a business question and a question of how you prefer to work.

Many clients don't negotiate copyright ownership especially when issues regarding delivery of work and payment terms take greater precedence to both parties. If you educate your clients about copyright & IP issues involved in how they receive work from you, you can make your work more valuable to clients and get them to pay for the increased value you can deliver.

Two options/solutions on how to handle copyright with a client:

1) Give your client a non-exclusive license to use your web design work that likely includes assets that also belong to them (e.g., logos, photos, copy, etc). This works for many clients, and is implicitly what you and a client get when you don't address these issues head on. You remain the copyright owner of the work you create.

2) Give your client the ability to receive full copyright & IP ownership to your work so they have full ownership of your web design to alter or update in the future as they wish without having to consult with you first as the default copyright owner of the work. If you do this, you should charge an additional fee to cover the increased value of what you delivering to them.

Here's a resource that covers some of the basics of freelancer/client copyright issues to look out for: "How Mismanaging Your Copyright & IP Rights is Ruining Your Career as a Creative or Freelancer (And How to Fix It!)"

At the end of the day, you have make it's a business question of whether you retain or transfer copyright ownership. Just make sure you receive the added business value as a creative of transferring copyright to a client since you are delivering more value.

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