Who owns your portfolio?

Dafydd Vaughan on 28 April 2009

For web developers and designers the question of who owns your portfolio is an important one. It is a question that is not as clear cut as you might think. It seems that depending on your circumstances, you may not have any legal right to display the work that you produce.

The general opinion is split into two areas – freelancers and contractors/employees. If you are a freelancer, the answer seems pretty simple. Unless you have signed an agreement with a client that hands over all rights to them, you are the copyright owner, and so you can use it in your portfolio. If you are a contractor or employee, things are much more complicated. This isn’t helped by the UK’s outdated copyright laws, recently declared to be the worst in the world by Consumer Focus – the new public organisation responsible for campaigning for consumer rights.

If you are a contractor, you should check the terms and conditions of your contract. If there is a clause handing all copyright to your employer, then there is nothing you can do. If on the other hand, there is no condition, you might be covered by fair use (this is a part of copyright law that allows certain actions that would normally be regarded as infringement).

For employees, the picture is even bleaker. Anything you create during work hours belongs to your employer. This even covers things like photographs taken during work time using your own camera. In these situations, fair use might still come into play.

In the past, when the printed portfolio was king, this issue wasn’t that important. After all, who would know that you are using work you produced while in employment in your portfolio. Now that it is essential for a developer / designer to have a digital portfolio open to everyone, this is issue has come up time and time again.

I would argue that your portfolio is covered by copyright fair use as you are not selling on the work, and not causing the copyright owner financial harm. Additionally, you may be providing your employer with free publicity. If you do go down this route, it is important to credit your employer. Also remember that claiming full credit for something you didn’t do or only had a part hand in comes under a different issue – plagiarism (you can see my thoughts on this here). You could also argue that as a website is in the public domain, there is nothing wrong with a screenshot of it – sites display screenshots of other sites all the time – it is accepted practice.

Recently I’ve been talking to lots of designers about this topic. It seems that lots of web companies don’t mind their employees showing work on their portfolio. Some even seem to go as far as to encourage their employees to do it because of the extra publicity it provides. There are, however, a minority that see things differently.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer, so you shouldn’t take anything I’ve said as legal advice. However there are plenty of places on the internet that do offer this advice and these are well worth a read (1, 2, 3, 4).

If you are an employee and leave to take on another job or become a freelancer, you need to seriously consider the legality of your portfolio. Also remember that what may have been OK while you worked for the company, may not be once you leave.

What do you think? Should a designer be allowed to display a copy of the work he/she has done in their digital portfolio? Have you had problems with your online portfolio. Let me know – I’d be interested to gather a better picture about this issue.

6 comments on “Who owns your portfolio?

  1. it is a scary question really, especially when you consider the issue of fair use. how do you even quantify what usage is fair? the Shepard Fairey case over the Obama ‘hope’ poster is the perfect example. perhaps the law needs to be clarified. surely a ‘concept’ is owned entirely by the creator until it is implemented or copied…

  2. Good question. I think it’s good for designers/developers to build their on personal portfolio. I know Mike Kus, our designer, updates his portfolio regularly with work we do at Carsonified.

  3. Interesting question. I would hope that designers/developers would be able to build their own portfolio and be supported by their employers to do so (and understand some employers would want a mention that this work for example was done whilst working at “name of co.” or similar). I’m not employed but freelance, and do state in my contract that screenshots/publicity may be used on my own sites of the work done for a client.

    Be interested to see how the conversation develops on this topic, especially from those that may have encountered issues.

  4. I don’t have issues w/ my portfolio at the moment, but I can see in the future that work I might be involved with as part of a company will be covered by whatever I sign on my contract. I’d be interested to see how this is phrased in contracts.

  5. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a lot as of late, I’ve been a freelance web developer/designer for years but next year I’ll be working for an agency for the first time and I’ve been wondering what their views on this would be.

    Whilst I feel it is completely fair to use the work you’ve done to promote yourself, even when working for someone else; I’m forever seeing freelancers and even agencies with very vague declarations of what it actually is they did: “We’ve worked with the BBC & Microsoft”, ok… doing what?, dropping the big names always impresses, but it’s a bit misleading when you realise that it was a tiny subsidiary division of these companies that they in fact worked with.

    An excellent example I can think of would be an agency I saw not too long ago who had claimed to work with the BBC, further investigation revealed that they had actually designed a flash game for one of the shows on CBeebies.

    In summary I feel it is imperative for it to be made clear prior to a project is even began if the client desires the work to be excluded from all portfolios, but I am very against this when it causes no financial harm to the copyright owner.

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