This post originally appeared on the Shapeways blog.

With the relaunch of the Shapeways Designer For Hire program, we are seeing more and more designers and clients coming together to create amazing 3D printed objects. While that is unquestionably a good thing, more people coming together also means more opportunities for misunderstandings. (Buzzkill sentences like that are a reason that lawyers aren’t always invited to parties.) Lauren covered some of big areas of misunderstanding with her 8 Questions Your Client Doesn’t Know to Ask You. This post is going to only address one area: who owns the files and the copyrights at the end of a design job?

Thinking about this in advance can help head off a number of disputes, and getting an agreement in writing can be even better. You may see “getting it in writing” and immediately think to yourself “but contracts are boring.” You are right. Contracts are boring. But like other boring things that manage to stick around like seat belts and automated data backup, they can also be really useful in a pinch.

Getting this sort of thing in writing serves at least two purposes. First, and probably most importantly, it forces the designer and the client to get on the same page before time and money are spent. If they don’t agree, it is much better to know that before a job starts than to wait until the end. Second, once both sides have agreed in writing, it makes it easier to resolve disputes that do come up at the end of a job.

Who Gets the Files?

The first question to address is who gets the files at the end of the job.  Many designers assume that they will keep the files for a model, while clients assume that they will get the files at the end of the job. This obviously creates the opportunity for misunderstanding.  Hashing this out at the beginning of a job can avoid lots of heartache at the end.

When you are discussing files, make sure that you are specific. There is a big difference between getting an .stl file for a model and getting something with a bit more data like an .obj file.

Also, there is a distinction between having possession of the files and being able to use the file going forward. Regardless of who has the files, how they are used is probably governed by copyright. Which, naturally, raises the question of…

Who Gets the Copyright?

Especially if the model is nonfunctional and decorative, it is probably protected by copyright. In most cases, the designer will own the copyright in that model when it is created (assuming the copyright exists).

The copyright gives the copyright holder the ability to control things like how many prints are made from the file, or if the file can be modified in the future. Talking about what – if anything – happens after the commissioned print is made can help shed light on how important doing these types of things are to the client.

If the client wants more than a set number of printed models at the end of the job, they will probably need both the 3D model file and some sort of license to the copyright that protects the model.  There is a lot of flexibility to what the terms of that license can be. It can restrict the client to making exact copies via a designated printing service (like, say, Shapeways), require the client to report to the designer every time a print is made, or allow the client to modify the file freely. If the client really wants full control of the model, they could even require that the designer transfer the copyright to the client.

What is the Answer?

Every designer-client relationship is different, so there is no single answer that will apply to every situation. If you have a specific question, it could be useful to consult a lawyer before moving forward with the agreement.  AIGA’s model contract can also serve as a great jumping off point for discussions between a designer and client. As a bonus for designers, once they decide which parts of that contract they want to use it can just become their default client agreement.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to discuss these questions at the start of the relationship. If the client and designer are on the same page, it will be a quick discussion. If they disagree, it gives them the opportunity to work it out at the start of the relationship. Sometimes that disagreement can be resolved by the designer charging an extra fee for additional rights or access to files. Usually the designer and client can come to agreement, although sometimes they cannot. In either case, it is always better to discover that at the start of a job than at the end.

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