Creative Source Files – Are They Free?

Whenever a new contract is started, it’s always best to determine up front what that contract includes. Is it for just the final product? What does that final product include – and more importantly – not include? Does it include various source materials and files?


Source materials are oftentimes a point of discussion as their value is overlooked. And too often, people might be used to novice professionals handing over their materials for free.


Without going further, source materials should always have a fee.


Whenever you hire a designer, you’re paying for their time and a final product, not everything that went into it. In short, assets and project files are a valuable commodity, and signing away the rights to them – and/or any future work associated with them – comes at a price.


Consider if you went to a restaurant. You can order a dish and customize it to your liking. You can change it up and make it something truly personal, and the chef will make it however you request. The chef might even whip something up just for you. However, if you liked the meal, they wouldn’t give out the recipe just because you bought it for dinner. They might have used a special spice rub they use in another dish and wouldn’t want to give away the “secret sauce.”


You paid for a final personalized product – dinner – not everything that went into it.  You might be a talented cook yourself and know it’d be cheaper to make the meal at home instead of coming out to dinner, but the recipe for that dinner is still the chef’s property.


Unless agreed upon beforehand, project files and source assets are the intellectual property of the designer.


How certain visuals are accomplished might come from clever tricks done in the file that have proprietary value. Certain effects are code-driven, which someone might have fine-tuned over years of work. Other parts might be elements a designer has taken time and money to perfect but have been provided quickly and at no additional cost to you. All of these are intellectual property, and intellectual property is never free.


Before distributing a project file there’s a lot that has to be done.

Many times, a project file might require “cleaning.” There might be licensed materials inside the file that can’t be legally re-distributed. There might be inspirational materials from the creative process that a designer wouldn’t want to redistribute.


Just because there was a draft in the middle of the process doesn’t mean you can have the original materials for it. These middle drafts have value and in most cases it was agreed for one final product, not an endless revision process that provides assets for any future creative work you might have done.


In these cases, it takes a thorough dig-through of the file to find what needs to be removed and either remove it or render out a non-editable version of those parts of the file before releasing. This could include graphics, fonts, music, and other assets.


The file might be referencing assets locally on the designer’s computer. So just passing along the file without passing along those files won’t work. In these cases, it takes an investigation of the file to make sure everything it references is re-packaged into the ZIP file.


This takes time. And time costs money.


Project files generally require time after the close of the contract.

Inevitably, a lot of project files require explaining. Everyone designs in their own way, and when we’re focused on just delivering a final export, it’s a very different process than designing for someone else to use over time. After Effects files are the biggest culprits here, but other programs present their own sets of issues.


When someone opens a new project file, it often takes additional time to explain to a client where certain parts of a file might be buried and how to edit something. It always takes more time to investigate and explain a file to someone else than to just find and edit it myself.


There might be additional fees for software.

This depends on the type of project, but many design source files come from paid programs such as any of the Adobe Creative Suite apps. Unless you pay for latest releases of these pieces of software, you won’t be able to open or edit the files.


Additionally, sometimes third-party plugins are used that won’t show up or work unless you’ve paid for a license.


Lastly, requesting a project file is generally because someone has a way to either edit it personally, use a cheaper designer to make further edits, or to otherwise remove the current designer from the process. None of these are awful reasons to want a project file. However, relinquishing a project file presents risks for a designer.

Someone can easily create a derivative work and take full credit, leaving the original designer completely uncredited.

Someone can change the file in a bad way, credit the original designer (sometimes in good faith), and damage their reputation.

Or most simply, it removes future work from the current designer.


For all of these reasons, project files should be priced at a premium. In many cases, they can (and sometimes should) be priced 2-3x the original contract price.