Property rights: who retains the rights to a corrected electronic file?

A question about property rights: If a client furnishes an electronic file for an ad and I make changes to the ad, who retains the rights to the corrected electronic file?


This problem is probably as old as printing itself. And it would take a team of lawyers to answer it fully: not that they would agree among themselves as to the correct answer. Keep in mind my answer is a completely lawyer free response and should not be considered a legal opinion.

The web and electronic file transfers have certainly made the issue even more confusing. As a writer, I make a point of tracking my on-line work. It might surprise you how many people think that if something is posted on the web, it belongs to everyone. It doesn’t. I have been known to track down folks who steal (it is theft, after all) my work from the web and have even requested and received payment from folks who have pinched my work.

The same is true of printing. It is the author of a work who owns the work, whether it is formally copyrighted or not. In this case, the “author” is the owner of the electronic file, and could be the writer, the designer or publisher: whoever actually paid to have the files created.

If you change a file, you do so at the direction of the original file’s owner, and it remains the property of the original owner. If you decide to make changes in the file to make them print correctly, you are still working for the owner of the file, even if they have not requested the changes and you have not been compensated for them. It’s all part of the print production process and no transfer of ownership takes place in that process.

Much more likely, you have been compensated by the owner of the work for making the changes: further proof that you do not own the files. It’s not likely I would pay you to fix something I didn’t own. If my car repairman told me he owned the rights to my car because he fixed it, he certainly wouldn’t get very far in court.

Printers often want to be able to retain the rights to the finished electronic file to keep their clients from taking it to another printer after they have done so much work to make it printable. But to do so, you would have to have a legal contract with the client stating what specific rights you wish to retain. There are ways of encrypting or password protecting files so unauthorized people cannot use them (at least not readily - there are always work-arounds). Again, your client would need to approve of you putting locks on their files.

The printer’s services are generally considered a professional service. It may sound cold, but it’s basically production work for hire. More like the car mechanic. If those terms are not acceptable, you’ll need to have it put in writing and accepted by the customer.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at
© Copyright Print Buyers, Inc.