How To Make Sure You Can Show Work In Your Portfolio

Originally posted at Motionographer

You’re in the midst of production — the style frames you designed were approved, the work-in-progress animations you’ve sent along to the client were received well, and you’re rapidly approaching the deadline. You’re really happy with how the job looks, and everything is working smoothly. The client is happy, too. This will be a great piece for your portfolio!

But what happens when your client doesn’t want you to use the finished work in your portfolio?

The Problem:
Asking on Twitter, I got a ton of responses from artists who, through one set of circumstances or another, did great work they were proud of but were asked (either by the studio they worked with or by the end client) not to post it — and not always politely! Lots of those issues are unresolved, with the artists just backing down and not wanting to get into a fight with the studios and clients who hire them. Lots of those jobs will never see the light of day, since the clients who own them don’t want to put them out. But if you can retain the copyright to the work, you may be able to salvage something out of it, or re-use your hard work on your own project.

Too often, when you are on staff or freelancing, eager to do the work, you rush into a project without reading all the details of the contract. This is where artists get burned. It’s always a good idea to read your contracts and deal memos through thoroughly, speak up to the client or studio and make sure to declare your desire to show off your work as early in the process as possible. Amend any part of the contract you want to change before any work on the job is done.

Many contracts have a work-for-hire clause that automatically assigns the copyright of any work they create to the employer. This can be negotiated — if you wish to challenge it — but it’s fairly standard for most contracts. This also means that you may not have the ability to show any of you work on your own site or post about it online. And, of course, many studios have adopted specific policies on how employees can use the work they do while at a company on their reels and sites, which is why you see all those production company bugs on artist’s montages.

What to Do
Daniel Savage, who is one designer that got burned after working for six weeks on a project that he now can’t show said, “My advice, besides the obvious of READING a contract, is if you see something like that on a contract, cross it off and initial. IF they say no and you need the money, demand a huge pay increase. Otherwise don’t work with them, there is plenty of work to go around not to put up with that crap.”

Sebas & Clim also dealt with the same problem recently. “The possibility of showing the project or not is always one of our first questions. The budget changes radically if something will have to be completely secret or not … 90% of our work came because someone saw our [previous] projects,” they said.

Since their project, whose title remains confidential, went well, and since they have a good relationship with the client, they asked if they could use it in their portfolio without any reference to the brand. The client agreed, and they used the piece without voiceover and logos, resulting in an impressive animation showpiece for themselves.

Many graphic designers and illustrators also deal with these issues, but their industry often works a bit differently than ours. They will often retain the copyright of a piece of artwork, but specifically license it out to clients for specific uses. Much of the advice and standards in the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook deal specifically with how to negotiate these type of contracts. And the AIGA has a section in the explanation of its Standard Form of Agreement For Design Services that notes:

You’ll also want to be able to show and explain portions of the completed project to other companies when you are pitching new business. Sometimes clients who are in highly competitive industries have concerns about this. They may ask for the right to review and approve such promotional activity on a case-by-case basis. If you have licensed the final art to the client rather than making a full assignment of rights, and the work does not fall within the category of work-for-hire (defined below), you are legally entitled to show the work in your portfolio. As a professional courtesy, however, you will want to be sensitive to client concerns.

On a recent freelance job I worked on, I managed to solve this whole problem easily and straightforwardly, by simply by asking the producer to insert one sentence into the contract. It read, “Company agrees that [NAME] may show the artwork created by him for Company on personal marketing reels and on his web site at [URL] only.” So that’s my advice. Get it in writing.

More on this topic:
Jessica Hische – The Dark Art of Pricing
Graphic Artist Guild – Can I Show My Work in My Portfolio When I Don’t Own the Rights Anymore?
AIGA – Standard Form of Agreement For Design Services
Docracy – The Collective Legal Guide For Designers (Contract Samples)
Motionographer – Credit Where Credit Is Due


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