Help! Who owns my work?

Hello, I have a problem and would really appreciate some guidance.

I worked for a company as a freelance consultant. Not within a design capacity, but within environmental work.

During this time my interest and hobby in design was noticed and I was asked to design a new brand identity, as well as a new interior architectural space for their new headquarters. There was no agreement and no contract, and I was not payed a separate fee for this work-I was to do the work on the side, on top of my regular job and to bill the company for those extra hours at my regular hourly wage.

Months of red-eye design work, research and personally searching and locating a new building for them of which to implement the designs later, and for unrelated reasons the workplace became sour. I had a very bad encounter with one of the owners, which I would classify as workplace bullying, and I walked out of the company.

Now they are saying my drafts, renderings and sketches are theirs and that I must hand them over. I don’t necessarily mind doing so, but want to be protected from the off-chance that they may hire a design student or someone else to implement and/or take credit for my work.

They still owe me two weeks of pay, and the last email I received from them basically said they would like the designs first ‘before we will settle commercial terms with you’

Help, please!! I feel underpayed for this work, and like I have been taken advantage of. They told me they wanted me to continue to oversee the entire design process after I left, I scheduled a real estate appointment and toured them through a new building-which they agreed to lease, and at the last minute they phoned to tell me they wouldn’t be moving to that location so my services wont be needed as of this moment. I am sure they are still moving there but that I have been pushed out-all my work being taken from under me.

Can I request a buyout for the sketches and renderings? If so, what kind of template or resource do I turn to for that?

Thank you if you’ve read this whole post, I would really appreciate any guidance available.

Though I am no legal expert as there are no agreements in place, I am not sure if the previous owners could make claims for any of the work you have done. Also like you say no extra payment was made in that regard nor were any terms laid for the extra work, there is no way the previous owners can claim that you did the work for them as there are no contracts nor are there any payment proofs made in regards the work done, so you could refuse to provide work done and drafts to them given what you have mentioned above.

I guess someone with some legal knowledge would better suggest regarding legal angle but given your description I think you own the work and hold rights to it.

You’ve got to separate in your mind your grievance against the company from the question of ownership of the work. No matter how much you feel underpaid; the fact that you had to go to a huge amount of effort for little reward; the fact that you were obviously under-appreciated - none of that affects the question of ownership.

The fact that there was no written contract means that the terms of your employment can only be judged in reference to what is considered normal practice in your country and industry. You don’t say which country you are in. But, in most cases, the person or company who pays for the work would own the intellectual property. Many freelancers insist on a contractual right to retain ownership of the work, but you clearly didn’t do that.

In my opinion, you should accept their ultimatum, that is, hand over the designs and get the money that’s coming to you. Then move on.


I am in Canada.

Do you think it is fair to request some form of a buyout? I wouldn’t be looking for anything large, maybe $200 or something that would be considered fair.

I’ve tried to do a lot of research online but haven’t been able to identify if a ‘buyout’ is common practice for designers or not.

Unfortunately, because you did not have a contract, you are probably very limited in what you can do.

There was no agreement and no contract, and I was not payed a separate fee for this work-I was to do the work on the side, on top of my regular job and to bill the company for those extra hours at my regular hourly wage.

So, the company asked you do to something, and you got paid for it at your regular wage. Effectively, you did the work on company time, and therefore, they own what was produced. However, there might be some wiggle room if you have a specific job description–it might be considered commissioned work, although if you have been paid as agreed, the company still owns it.

I’d suggest that you simply hand over what was produced, get the wages you are already owed, and leave it at that.

However, if you seriously want to fight this, talk to a lawyer.

I don;t know about Canada specifically, but it sounds like you were never an ‘employee’ with this company, therefore (in the UK at least), the company cannot blanket claim ownership of anything you did while on ‘company time’ or using ‘company resources’. If you were an employee, you can bet they would have made you sign an employment contract that covers this kind of stuff.

It sounds like in all aspects you were a freelance contractor. However you seem to suggest there was no contract at all? Nothing, not even for the original environmental consulting work?

Basically unless there is evidence of an agreement to which you agree to sign over the rights to your work, you own anything you create, regardless of whether you were paid (or not paid) to create it. Typically as a contractor you would agree to a ‘work for hire’ arrangement, where the company you provide the work for demand you hand over all rights to them upon completion of the project. Without that agreement (be it a contract, an email, or some other form of hard evidence), the company can theoretically whistle, but either way, it’s messy and I bet their lawyer huffs and puffs more than yours.

I wouldn’t be looking for anything large, maybe $200 or something that would be considered fair.

$200 does not seem like enough money to warrant making a huge deal out of this. You say they owe you 2 weeks pay as well? Is that for the original consulting work, or for these designs? either way, they clearly wish to hold that to ransom until you cough up the designs, which isn’t very classy, so tells you a bit about the people you are dealing with.

If it were me, I’d first want to clear up any money matters relating to the ‘official’ consulting work you were contracted for. Try to separate it from this design stuff. IMO, let them have the designs, lesson learnt, move on to pastures greener. All that worrying about them not giving you credit or handing it over to someone else to implement seems a bit pointless. Pick your battles wisely - this one doesn’t seem like one worth fighting, be it on principle or for the money.

If you were paid at all for the extra hours, then I doubt you have any recourse against them. Most freelance contracts (at least in the US) include clauses that state that any work done while working for the firm remain the firms properties.