Native design files are a designer’s secret recipe, yet some designers hand them over free of charge. But, unless it’s a work for hire, you have every right to charge for these files. Find out why clients might ask for them, why you should charge for source files, what you should charge for them and more.
The topic of native files has come up a few times in the Design Domination Facebook group, so I wanted to address it on the podcast. By “native files,” I mean layout or layered files—Adobe® InDesign®, Quark XPress, Photoshop®, Illustrator®, as opposed to a PDF or flattened image file. Native files are your approach to the work, the tools of the trade, your recipe for the project.
Reasons Clients Might Ask for Native Files
So let’s dig into some reasons why clients might ask for native files in the first place. Some clients have a valid reason for asking for the native files, while some clients think they need them when they actually don’t.
I see a lot of designers giving them away simply due to being asked for them by the client, and they just comply. But it’s problematic for both parties when the need is misunderstood. Clients may not be able to work with the files, and designers give away their rights.
Over the past 20-some years, I’ve had several clients ask for native files, but only a handful of them actually understood what that means for them and therefore actually end up getting them. Much of the time, after I’ve explained things, they no longer feel the need for them and they don’t want to deal with them.
Here are some reasons I’ve encountered why clients ask for native files.
If you’re designing a template for the client or for their designers to use, then you will need to provide the native files to the client.
On the flip side, the client may supply you with templates, like for a publication, where you’re doing the layout work.
I’ve had several clients over the years who have in-house designers, who have needed to take the files and create other types of work from them. Their designers might be well-seasoned designers with too much on their plate to work on the project at that time, or they might be more junior level and the client needed an outside designer with more expertise to create the actual design for their designer to then work from.
An example of this could be their designer taking a brochure you design and creating a postcard and social media images from that design.
If I learn in the initial call that the client has an in-house designer, I will ask, “Will you be needing the native files from this project?” If the answer is yes, then I provide it as a separate line item in the estimate or proposal. If they’re not sure, I ask how they plan to use the design, like if it will be used to create other pieces.
Some clients might want their own designers to make edits when reprinting this in the future, likely due to potential cost savings if they make them themselves. They might have last-minute updates to be made, and perhaps you would potentially be unavailable or may need to charge a rush fee to accommodate their requests when they need those updates.
An example could be you provide a file and their designer makes text edits, such as a date change to an ad that runs throughout the year. You’ve done all the creative work, but you may not even have any interest in getting paid to change a few words here and there anyway.
4. Peace of mind
Some clients want a copy of native files because they’ve had a designer go MIA due to lack of responsibility or a medical emergency. If they have to start working with a new designer, at least they’d have a starting point. These clients are usually looking for peace of mind.
Some clients may insist that something could happen to your files, so they want their own backup copy. I do mention to them, if that comes up, that I keep redundant backups.
The issue of native files can be confusing for designers, so it’s no wonder when clients are confused.
Some clients feel they should ask for the native files because they think they’re supposed to because they heard it from someone without understanding why they did that maybe, or because their last designer just gladly handed them over—and free of charge—so they just expect them.
6. Creative rights
I once had a client think they needed to buy the native files so that I wouldn’t reuse what I had designed for them for another client. Yeah, no. What designer wants to create something similar for more than one client? Boring! But anyway, just because you hand over native files doesn’t mean you’re handing over the rights to the design. You can still retain those rights. It depends on what’s in your contract.
7. Moving on
I don’t believe I’ve ever had this happen, but a client might want the native files so that they can work with another designer moving forward.
I had a client take the files in house, only to find out that was not the best move. The level of expertise was not there. So they ended up contacting me the next year, asking for help again with their publications, and they even gave us another publication to work on.
What You Should Tell the Client About Native Files
Most clients, when they understand about native files, will decline. Maybe they hadn’t previously realized the need to have and know how to use the software, and buy and install fonts, and so forth. I once actually had a client ask if I would be supplying the program with the files!
To help the client understand whether or not they need the native files, you can educate them on several points.
Giving them native files does not necessarily mean you’re giving them the rights to use the design as a whole or in part in other materials. It should be explicitly stated in the contract if you are given them full copyrights, which would be more than reproduction rights.
Reproduction rights are more limited, such as they can go have the brochure printed or make it available for download on their website.
Most clients don’t have the software to work with native files. They also don’t usually have the time or the expertise or the interest. Like I always say, just because you can install QuickBooks, it doesn’t make you an accountant. Providing InDesign files is not going to make them a designer.
Some clients may assume that when you provide native files, you will also be around to answer any questions about them, and by questions, I mean training them to use the files and helping them understand how they work. “How did you do this? Why did you do that?” Um, no.
That’s why they hired you, as the expert, in the first place. If they want training, they should go fish and find a class. Now, if you’d like to provide training, they should pay for that. So just make that clear.
You cannot legally include fonts with the native files unless the end-user license agreement (EULA) says so. If you cannot legally send them the fonts, you will need to tell the client that they need to obtain their own license, and that might be free or it might something they have to pay for.
The client may not be legally allowed to use any custom or stock photos. If you purchased the images on their behalf, then the license is theirs and should be transferred to them upon payment, which also means you shouldn’t be using it elsewhere.
Some stock image companies will allow you to assign the license to the client. Otherwise, you may be considered the license holder, and that may mean the client cannot use the images.
Some stock image companies may actually limit the number of impressions, which can refer to printed copies or page views on a website. The client will need to be aware of this.
And, hey, some of them will say, “This is too much. Nevermind.”
Why You Should Charge for Native Files
This is my favorite part. Now, if the client has been a great client and this is an infrequent request, then you might consider handing them over free of charge. The important thing is that you understand your rights as a designer and that you have the right to charge for the files.
If you or the client aren’t sure as to why there would be a charge for the native files, then here are a few reasons as to why you should charge for them:
The client is getting more value from the work by getting the files. The initial value was in the service that you provided. You can also think of the situation as buying a meal at a restaurant: you eat the meal but you don’t leave with the recipe, you know?
2. Intellectual property
Native files are your proprietary files built from your expertise. Working out creative solutions in the software involves your tricks of the trade along with talent and many years of training and professional experience. This all leads to faster and more efficient ways of working over time. So when you hand over those native files, there is the potential for the client or another designer to analyze them and use them to learn from.
When it comes to intellectual property, you retain the intellectual property rights to your files by default, unless it’s a work-for-hire situation.
3. Potential loss of work
The client is taking potential work away from you either by doing it themselves or taking the files to another designer. Now, in my entire career, I can’t recall ever providing native files and not hearing from the client again.
What You Should Charge for Native Files
If the subject comes up, when you provide an estimate, I recommend showing the native files as a separate line item (then they can think about if they really want them or not) or by building it into the price if you know they want them up front.
As a guideline, I’ve charged anywhere from 25% to 100% of the fee for the total project. Typically, the higher the project fee, the smaller the percentage I charge.
What to Put in Your Contracts About Native Files
Legal disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so don’t take this as legal advice. This is just from my own experience and me having talked to to lots of lawyers about my contracts.
Native files can be such a confusing issue for the designer and the client. The key to preventing miscommunication on the issue of native files is having a written contract that addresses deliverables (print and web PDFs, or those plus native files), and it needs to be understood by both parties—in plain English.
Trust me. This avoids awkward conversations with prospects and clients. The topic of native files can make you come across as inflexible or providing a convenience and being accommodating. Regardless, native files can certainly be negotiated. So you can decide if you want to give them away at all, and whether you want to do so free or for a fee and what that fee would be.
I used to have a copyright clause in my contract that was full of legalese. I think it may have come from the AIGA contract sample, but it’s been so long, I can’t remember. I’ve taken some of my clauses from that over the years. But, anyway, I found that the copyright clause caused a lot of confusion and sometimes opened up a can of worms.
So I spelled it out in plain English: that they are granted reproduction rights and if they want native files and intellectual property rights, meaning full copyrights, there is an additional fee for that. And they don’t have to decide right then. They can decide later, and, if they do that, then that is when I will decide the fee too. I don’t decide it up front unless it’s comes up.
Now, if it’s a logo, of course, they should get the native files as part of the work. They should obtain full rights to the design and files. Nothing else makes sense in that situation—although I have heard lots of designers with commoditized design services actually charge more for the native files for logos, which is insane.
One thing I want to mention that happened to me once was: if you send printers native files, as opposed to a PDF, you may want to let them know that they should not share your files with the client, or anyone else for that matter. I once encountered this when a printer handed over the native files to the client, much to my horror. They were not the ones with the agreement with the client for the design and layout; I was. I had a conversation with that printer, let me tell you. So sending a PDF to the printer is not only less likely to have issues than a PDF, but it is an extra level of protection, or, rather, control.
Work for Hire
Earlier, I mentioned work for hire, and I’ve covered this in another episode of the podcast. By “work for hire,” I mean a situation where you retain no rights to the design or files. For instance, if you work on a project as a subcontractor for a creative firm, they will expect the rights to the design and the files. They will expect you to hand over everything. That’s fine and is to be expected.
Work for hire could also be a situation where you’re working on files that the client supplied to you, and you’re not doing any design; you’re just doing the layout based on their template. They will expect the files and they should get them.
If you do any work for a government organization, you’re usually working from one of their contracts, and that’s usually a work-for-hire situation or one where they own the rights to the design and the files.
Some designers and agencies just hand over native files free of charge, but, unless it’s a government work or it’s a work for hire, you have every right to charge for these files. They are your tools that contain proprietary information. I mean, you wouldn’t ask a contractor to build you a deck and then ask that he leave his saw and hammer and plans. Of course not. You paid for the service—the act of building a deck, not getting the tools.
And to the analogy I used earlier: your files are the recipe, and the meal is the finished work. After you create the meal for the client, do you want to hand over the recipe too? It’s up to you, of course, but I hope you will consider all of these points first.