Do You Need the Native Files?

design and layoutWhen not addressed in a design contract and left to assumptions by both parties, native files can be a point of contention between design studios and clients. But they don’t have to be.

The term native files refers to the file format that an application uses to create or save files. In this article, we are referring to page layout files (such as Adobe® InDesign®) and any associated artwork or photos used within those layout files, or there could be just a layered image file (such as Adobe® Photoshop® or Adobe® Illustrator®).

Design firms do not typically provide the native files to the client unless the client is a government entity, the job is a work for hire, the files were included as one of the deliverables in the contract or, hey, the design firm is simply being generous. That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest are moody creative types who want to be difficult.

Let’s shed some light on this topic.

Unless otherwise specified, when you, the client, contract with a designer to create something, you are getting the finished product. You get value—certain results—from that. Providing native files in addition to the finished work would be an additional, separate value—but only if you need them (otherwise, they are of no use to you). 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. Make sense?

OK. Let’s look at the legalese in this situation.

Intellectual Property Rights

As the creator of the source files, the design firm or the designer (unless an employee of a design firm) is the owner of the native files as a result of intellectual property rights being automatically attributed to them at the time of creation. Therefore, it is the design firm’s decision as to whether or not to provide them. If it does, it can choose to do so for a fee. Why? The native files contain proprietary information and are a company’s competitive edge. Working out creative solutions and finding the best way to incorporate a solution into the software involve proprietary tricks of the trade along with talent and many years of training and professional experience. These all lead to faster and more efficient ways of working over time.

Here’s an example to help illustrate this point:

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in a park one day, when a woman recognizes him and approaches him. She insists he sketch her portrait right then and there. Picasso agrees. He studies her for a short time and draws a single pencil stroke on the sheet of paper. He then shows it to her. She is delighted and says that he managed to capture her essence with just one stroke in only a moment. She thanks him and asks the cost, to which Picasso replies, “Five thousand dollars.” The woman is dumbfounded and asks how it possibly could cost so much when it took only a second to draw it. Picasso replies that it took him his entire life to be able to draw that.

To Ask or Not to Ask

Do you need the native files? Let’s look at some reasons you might need native files or why you may not even care about them at all. Some clients have a valid reason for getting the native files, while some clients think they need them when they actually don’t (such as to send them to a printer). So when should you, as the client, ask for them?

  • If you need to make ongoing text edits (such as only a date change to an ad that you will run throughout the year) and you have an in-house designer who has the software and training to use the files.
  • If you are contracting with a design firm to create the initial design and you are going to have an in-house designer use that design and the files to create other materials. For example, you pay for the design of a conference program and banners, and your in-house designer is going to create a postcard from that design.
  • If you are purchasing the design of a template that an in-house designer will flow content into.

(By the way, the majority of clients do not meet these criteria.)

You probably shouldn’t bother asking about native files if:

  • You don’t have the proper software.
    (Software would be an additional expense.)
  • You don’t have any training on using the software.
    (Training would cost you time and money.)
  • You do not want to or cannot afford to buy the fonts.
    (Licenses for fonts are not transferable, and the cost of fonts could potentially be thousands of dollars.)

Clients usually have neither the time nor interest to make any edits or modifications themselves—or to understand the file setup. Even if they do, it will take much longer to make any edits than if the designer were to handle the task. So, most clients want nothing to do with the native files.

If you do decide to ask for the native files, keep in mind:

  • You cannot legally obtain the fonts from the design firm. If you do, both you and the design firm are in violation of the font manufacturer’s end-user license agreement (EULA).
  • The design firm is not providing training or support with the files. If something gets messed up in the file, you will have to pay to have it corrected.
  • You are not necessarily being given 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 being given those rights.
  • You may not be legally allowed to use any custom or stock photography elsewhere or after a certain period of time.

Preventing Miscommunication

The key to preventing miscommunication on the issue of native files is a written contract that addresses deliverables and is understood by both parties. Always check to see if native files are listed as a deliverable in the work agreement. If they aren’t, don’t assume they are included, and be sure to ask about the fee.

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