Course Content

Total learning: 27 lessons / 4 quizzes Time: 6 weeks

Understanding Legal and Copyright for Graphic Design

Legal and Copyright

Understanding Graphic Design Legal and Copyright (welcome message)

Video: Understanding Legal and Graphic Design Copyright Issues  Length: 6:56 min

When you are working with creative assets it is tempting to use assets that are freely and easily accessible. Although before you do that, let’s take a closer look at what this means in regards to Graphic Design copyright law, piracy, plagiarism, fair use, and photo manipulation.

When working with a Graphic Designer it’s important to know the rules of copyright and legal rights of creative assets like Graphic Design. The rules are fairly black and white regarding copyright, unless there’s a contract of agreement that states otherwise. Typically the creator retains and reserves all rights granted to them under the law. In Canada there are strong rules against copyright infringement, but it’s best to protect your business by educating yourself on the copyright laws in the country where your business operates.

A quick message to everyone, when it comes to copyright law, piracy, plagiarism, fair use, and photo manipulation for assets that are not yours, you simply do not  have rights to use them in any capacity, most importantly when you are distributing them commercially to generate profit for your business. The best course of action to simply not use anyone else’s creative without permission. Regarding open source creative, it’s always best to check the rights of use laid out by the owner of the creative. If you are unsure of the rights of use on creative you wish to use, you can search the Creative Commons database or contact the creator asking for permission to use.

Module Topics

Here’s what you will learn about Graphic Design Legal and Copyright issues:

  • Become aware of general rules of Graphic Design copyright law
  • Learn about purchased Graphic Design assets and their restrictions
  • What to know about Graphic Design assets in the public domain

Module Topic Learning Objectives

After completing this module and participating in the online discussion, you will be able to:  

  • Know how to research creative licences and determine what the rights of use are
  • What to know about royalty-free assets are being used in commissioned creative
  • Obtain Media Release Waiver for models used in your company photography

What Exactly Does the Graphic Designer Own?

Generally the Graphic Designer owns the creative rights of the work you have paid them to create, even though you have commissioned them to create Graphic Design for you. Typically this applies to Graphic Designers who work on a project-based commissioned project or as a freelance designer. This is not usually the same case for employees employed at the company where they are employed in a Graphic Designer role — the assets belong to the company.

This means the designer owns all rights to creative working files, like the Photoshop, Illustrator, and other software working files used to design the creative. You have paid the designer to create Graphic Design to be used with or for your brand only. You are not granted access automatically to the working files to continue making new graphic designs, or permitted to edit the files with the aid of that Designers working file or intellectual property.  If you would like the working files, you will have to ask for them. In some instances a designer may transfer the files to you at no cost, although if that is not the case, be prepared to have a licence agreement of use prepared in order to transfer creative ownership with costs associated.

What About Graphic Design Assets for Purchase or in Public Domain?

It is important to pay attention to image rights purchasing, as well as using assets from public domain so you can to protect your business and ensure you are not violating copyright laws.

Royalty-free or RF is the right to use copyright material when a purchase for the material is made, which grants rights to use the materials. If you do not purchase copyright then is not allow to use, as it’s an unauthorized use or reproduction of another’s work. Typically this type of creative is purchased once without royalty or long-term licensing fees. Even when you purchase rights to use copyright material, you will discover there are sometimes permissible limits on a photo, icon, video or illustration. Metrics that require your adherence will be something of similar wording: 500,000 copies of an image used in print runs books, magazines and posters, or 500,000 impressions in advertising materials, and budgets limits in TV, Online Video and Film for the creative asset purchased before a financial upgrade in licensing is required. You will find more information in the terms of service in the licence agreement when doing image research with a stock photography company.

The purpose of the upgrade in licensing fees is to attribute appropriate payment to the author, creator, and owner of the creative assets. It is important as a business owner that you protect the rights of your company in use of your assets, as well as the creators behind the assets by giving credit where it is due.

Be sure to ask the Graphic Designer for the source of images and fonts used in the commissioned Graphic Designs, To determine if they are purchasing on your behalf ask with a questions like, ‘did you do a photoshoot or is it stock photography?’ then “Will I receive a copy and will the licence be transferred?”. If stock photography is purchased and used, how many impressions allowed may be important knowledge for your business. Inquire about the source of fonts, icons, illustrations and any other creative assets used in the Graphic Design work.

If you are planning a photoshoot to create visuals for your Graphic Designer, even with friends and family, prepare for each model in the photoshoot a media release waiver which grants consent for your business to use media of the persons in the image and/or any copies of the works in editorial and promotional materials produced by the company.

A few other things to know:

  • Some images can be used for editorial use only, but not commercial use.
  • When using free assets distributed online in the public domain, be sure to check the creators rights of use. Some authors will grant personal use, but do not grant use for commercial purposes. Usually this information is attached as a text file in the package download.
  • It is important to respect Creative Commons when valuing the creative rights of Graphic Designers, Illustrators, Videographers, and Photographers for fair use and to protect your business from copyright infringement.
  • If you are sourcing your own photography, photographs of models used in any Graphic Design materials, a signed media release is an absolute must.


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