When the Customer Doesn't Pay for the Logo, Who Owns the Copyright?

If a business or individual freelance designer is hired to create a logo for a company, but the company does not pay, the designer almost always still own the logo.  This means that if the company tries to use it, the designer can bring a legal action for compensation or to prevent its use.

Copyright is the right to an original graphic (like a picture) or textual (like a slogan, but also including longer works, up through novel length) work. Once the original work comes into existenceas soon as you write something new, for example, or create a new designyou have copyright in it. Copyright usually belongs to the work's creator and gives him or her the right to control if and how other people can reproduce or otherwise use it.

When a designer creates a logo, the rights to that logo typically belong to the designer. There are two ways a company hiring a designer to create a logo can acquire the rights:

  • Most commonly, there is an agreement describing the logo as a "work for hire," which is work specifically commissioned by the customer or client. As a specifically commissioned work, it will belong to the customer or client.(Note that anything created by an actual employee in the course of his or her employment is automatically a work for hire owned by the employer.)
  • Alternately, there could be an agreement by which the logo's creator transfers, or assigns, the rights to the logo to the business hiring the creator.

When one company hires another company (or a self-employed freelancer) to create a logo, it obtains the rights to the logo by a contractual agreement, such as a work for hire agreement or an assignment of rights. However, it's important to remember that contracts bind both parties. If one party breaches a material, or key, term of the contract, the other party will often have grounds to not perform its side of the contract. In particular, if party A will not pay, party B does not have to provide the goods or services the contract called for.

So if a business doesn't pay a logo's creator, the creator's rights to the logo may not transfer to that business. Since the contract was breached due to non-payment, the logo's creator keeps all rights to the logo and can take legal action to enforce those rights, including suing the business that tries to use the logo without paying.