Working as a freelance artist or graphic designer often means starting projects that don’t end up with a paid invoice. Sometimes, a client is unhappy with the final product and chooses to work with someone else. That on its own may be frustrating but it is not necessarily unusual.
However, a graphic designer or artist may check back at a company’s website or social media profile weeks later, only to see a slightly modified version of their rejected design proudly displayed in their marketing materials. Is that freelance artist or graphic designer in a position to take action if a company uses their work without paying them but makes minor modifications to it?
Mild alterations do not void copyright protection
Freelance graphic designers or artists will typically sign contracts releasing the copyright authority for their works to a client. However, that transfer of rights usually only occurs after the completion of the project and the payment of the invoice. If a client rejects someone’s work and does not pay them for it, then the freelancer or original artist will typically retain the ownership of and control over those rejected works or designs. Anyone attempting to use the intellectual property of another without permission could face consequences. Freelancers and artists could fight back and demand compensation, as well as the cessation of the use of their designs in many cases.
The act of slightly modifying a design or work of art does nothing to alter the creator’s copyright protection. There is no amount of alteration that makes the use of a copyrighted image suddenly legal. It is only if the courts determine that the use is transformative that the reproduction of an altered copyrighted image can occur without risking financial or legal consequences.
A contract review is often a good starting point
Reviewing formal communications with a client and any contract signed about the project can help a freelancer determine if a violation occurred and if they may be able to demand payments for the art they delivered that the company rejected and then used anyway.
Seeking legal guidance to better understand what constitutes an actionable violation of intellectual property rights can help freelancers and creative professionals protect themselves from the misconduct of their clients.