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There is a debate in the creative community that you may not be aware of regarding source files. Should you send your source files to clients as part of your original project fee? Or should you charge the client extra when they request that you send them the source files? Let’s look at both sides of this debate.

(For those of you not familiar with the term, source files are the layered, raw, production files you used to create the final work. They often include layered Photoshop files, vector Adobe Illustrator files, native Adobe InDesign files etc.)

You work so hard pouring all of your creative energy into producing top flight work for your client. Things are going great and consistent work flows for a year straight. Then, all of sudden, out of the blue, your client lets you know that they have decided to pull the work in house. “Please send us all of the source files,” they request. “My source files, my layered Photoshop files, original InDesign documents, and all my production files in XD,” you think! “But then you’ll just give them to another designer to see exactly how I did everything.” Your thoughts continue, “Surely my source files are worth something. But how should I price them?”

Should you charge extra for delivery of source files? Or should you send them to your client free of charge?

Charging Extra for Source Files

A friend of mine owns a business. When he started his business he worked with a popular creative agency in our area to create his brand and marketing materials. Things started out great, but a few months into the relationship he became frustrated and didn’t want to work with them any longer. He reached out to request the source files for the work he had completed so that he could move on to another designer. Their response, “No problem. If you want us to send you the source files, you need to pay us $40,000.” My friend thought, “What the heck?!?! Is this common practice?”

The agency’s request for payment for source files left my friend with an extremely bitter taste in his mouth. He paid the fee and got his files. And the agency got their money. They also gained a bad reputation with my friend which spread to other business owners he knows. And, as their reward, the agency earned a vow from my friend that he would never work with them again under any circumstances. Congratulations agency! You earned your reward!

Delivering Source Files as Part of the Project

I operated my agency with the perspective, “How would I want to be treated as a client?” As I client, my perspective would be, “I paid for this work and the files should be mine too.”

This led me to adopt this ownership clause in my contract:

OWNERSHIP: To the extent that Vendor has received payment of compensation as provided in this Agreement and the applicable statement of work, all selected final materials, artwork and/or digital deliverables produced by Vendor, its employees, agents or assistants specifically for Client will be owned by Client. All work performed for Client by Vendor shall be considered “work for hire.”

In summary, if the client had paid for the work, they also own the source files. I would deliver them as part of the project fee and not charge extra. This business practice is in harmony with how I would want to be treated as a client.

Pros, Cons, and My Recommendation

Sure, you can charge for delivery of source files. The benefit to you is some extra money. But the downside is a ding on your reputation.

If you push back on the client and say, “pay me for the source files,” you end your relationship on a sour note. It is unlikely that the client will ever hire you again. They will likely never refer you again. Your name will be tainted. What is your reputation worth?

In contrast to charging for the source files, when you deliver the files with the attitude, “Of course we will deliver the files to you. I loved working with you. I’ll get the files over to you right away and hope that in the future we can maybe work together again. Thank you for all the work over the past year of great projects together.”

With this approach, the final impression you leave on the client is one of accommodation and ease of working together. “We had a few bumpy projects, but in the end _______ is a good person who I’d work with again,” the client will likely think.

Delivering source files as part of the project fee will vary from “artwork” related design disciplines like photography and illustration where licensing fees and ownership rights are often treated differently. I don’t recommend including source files as part of the project fee for all types of design work, but when it comes to print, digital, and other marketing materials (that most designers in the world are producing), this is the approach I adopted.

The “nice guy” route never failed me in business.

Michael Janda

I am Michael Janda, an executive level creative leader with more than 25 years of experience in both in-house creative departments and agencies working with some of the greatest brands in the world including Disney, Google, Fox, ABC and NBC. I create books, courses, workshops, lectures and other training materials to help creative entrepreneurs run successful businesses.