Legal side of outsourcing art

The Legal Side of Outsourcing Art


Outsourcing artwork can be an excellent way for companies and creators to obtain high-quality assets at affordable prices. However, it also introduces some notable legal considerations to ensure you protect your intellectual property and creative rights fully.

In this guide, we’ll explore key areas of the law pertaining to outsourced art. From copyright assignments to licensing arrangements, gain clarity around best practices for commissioning illustrations, concept art, logos, web assets, game art, and more – all while safely securing your legal interests. Let’s dive in.

Understanding Your Art Sourcing Options

There are three primary paths for obtaining artwork from freelancers: 

Standard Copyright Assignment – The default copyright stays with the creator unless contractually transferred. You can license art uses from the freelancer without issues.

Full Copyright Transfer – The client assumes full ownership over the art for all applications going forward. This requires explicit contractual transfer agreements.

Work-For-Hire – Art legally functions as a work-made-for-hire, with the commissioning company retaining copyrights automatically. Strict IRS criteria determine eligibility here, limiting common use. 

Evaluating your specific outsourcing needs in terms of art usage, modification rights, exclusivity needs, etc., helps determine the optimal path. We break down the key implications of each next.

Licensing Artwork Uses 

Many art outsourcing relationships function perfectly fine, staying with default copyrights. Here, you would simply negotiate licenses from the freelancer, allowing your required applications of their work rather than pursuing full assignments or transfers. There are also many mistakes when outsourcing that business owners should be aware of. 

Common licensing agreement components include:

  • Scope of Usage Rights – Be specific in listing types of uses permitted, like websites, game integrations, print marketing, etc.
  • Exclusivity Terms – Include whether rights are exclusive to you or if the creator can sell licenses to others.
  • Modification Rights – Address if you can alter or derivatize original artworks.
  • Term Length – State if perpetual or requiring renegotiation after x years.
  • Pricing – Higher payments are expected for broader rights, but preference varies per creator

Licenses allow utilizing art commercially while freelancers retain creative control and resell potential. Defining scope prevents misunderstandings down the line.

Transferring Copyright Ownership

Alternatively, some art buyers want full control and ownership over commissioned pieces to enable unrestricted usage internally or resale potential externally. Here, copyright assignments and transfers enter the equation.

Artwork naturally holds copyright protections for the creator by default. However, these rights can contractually get assigned/transferred to a new owner entirely. 

Doing so requires:

Explicit Transfer Wording – The contract should include clear IP assignment provisions for artworks. Avoid ambiguities.

Full Payment Rendition – Courts view payment as a vital exchange for assigning rights legally. 

Signed Writings – Enforceability requires physical or e-signatures from all parties on transfer agreements.

Pursuing transfers gives you expansive control, modification capacity, and sub-licensing abilities. But creators expect proper compensation in return through higher commission pricing. Make sure to finalize the necessary paperwork.

Qualifying Art as Work-For-Hire

A third approach relies on classifying commissioned art as “work-for-hire” (WFH). This immediately grants your company full copyright ownership without any transfer paperwork needed. However, stringent IRS criteria restrict common usage given the inherent rights imbalance it creates favoring buyers. 

The key hurdles to legally deem art as WFH include:

  1. Formal Employment Relationship – Freelancers must qualify as an employee or contractors to potentially label work as WFH, ruling out one-off hires.
  2.  Work Created Within Company Scope – Art must directly relate to your organization’s normal business activity to apply here.
  3. Written WFH Agreement – You need a formal contract clearly defining the commissioned art as a work-for-hire production.

Given limited relevance for most external art commissions, WFH status rarely comes into play for outsourcers. Stick with licenses or copyright transfers instead, as needed.

Protecting Digital Original Source Files

While licensing agreements and transfers allow in-product art usage, you should also agree on the management of the freelancer’s working original files like PSDs, AI (Adobe Illustrator), Maya models, etc. These source assets hold additional indemnity and modification value. Consider Artist provisions contractually mandating:  

  • Final Delivery of Originals – Ensure you also receive native working files before payment clears. 
  • Archival System – Detail an archiving system used to securely backup originals apart from final art exports like JPGs.  
  • Loss Protections – Clarify that in the event source files get lost externally, the freelancer must reproduce and redeliver them upon request. 

Thoughtfully governing source file accessibility and integrity protects your interests in the art long term.

Drafting Explicit Freelance Agreements 

Any quality outsourcing relationship requires clear written expectations between the client and creative freelancer or game art studio upfront aligned to the aforementioned legal considerations surrounding copyright licenses, transfers, IP ownership, etc.  

Rather than loosely commissioned art verbally, insist upon forming freelancer services agreements addressing all relevant legal contingencies like:

  • Detailed Artwork Scope & Expectations – Leave no detail ambiguous concerning art styles, asset quantity/types, creation milestones, etc., expected. Changes should involve formal change orders. 
  • Payment Terms & Invoicing Schedules – Outline payment amounts, stages (deposits, progress, final), payment methods, invoicing protocols, etc. 
  • Cancellation Clauses & Kill Fees – Note conditions allowing cancelling projects and any non-refundable payments applicable. 
  • Copyright License/Transfer Terms – Clearly state default rights outlook and usage terms per the above guidance.
  • Non-Disclosure Protections – Add mutual NDA clauses for negotiating parties prohibiting sharing deal points publicly until revealed.  

Having written records proves invaluable should disputes arise and for evidencing contracted expectations mutually agreed. Plus, requiring robust agreements filters out less professional artists unsure of handling enhanced legal complexities alongside purely creative ones.

Registering Federal Copyrights Where Applicable

Per the above, properly transferring copyrights contractually conveys legal ownership of outsourced artworks. However, for absolute protection, formally registering works under your name with the U.S. Copyright Office remains advisable for truly valuable digital or physical art, adding an extra layer of rights security. 

Key benefits include:

  • The public record establishes ownership if questions arise later 
  • Can file copyright lawsuits in federal court  
  • Seeks statutory fines up to $150k per infringement
  • May claim legal fees from infringers 

The office charges $45 per work at present with relatively formulaic application requirements. Just remember to only register finalized artworks within 30 days of publication or completion. Weigh factors like art value, risk exposures, infringement concerns, etc., in deciding if federal registration makes fiscal sense.

Evaluating Artist Portfolios Cautiously

When sourcing freelance artists initially, most buyers focus mainly on assessing examples of previous stylistic work in their portfolios. But it is prudent to also evaluate what provenance pieces have legally. Double check:

Artist Ownership – Ensure portfolio samples come from artist ownership projects vs appropriated works they lack rights for. 

Reference Checking – Ask for client references and any verification to reinforce the reputation assumed from portfolios. 

Contractual Alignment – Revisit agreements requiring their vested interest in original newly-commissioned art for you as the primary deliverable focused on. 

Scrutinizing legal legitimacy and priorities tied to displayed works helps avoid headaches from prior infringements carried forward or distracting external projects.


Outsourcing art can unlock huge quality and cost efficiencies but still warrants considering key legal formalities covered here surrounding rights transfers, licensing terms, IP protections, and sensible written agreements. Keeping compliant upfront ultimately provides needed confidence for securely integrating amazing freelancer productions worry-free while still preserving your creative and financial ownership interests completely. Just partner with specialists able to deftly handle both artistic and legal diligence professionally.


I am Marketing Manager at Digitalize Trends. My role is to research & ideate on trending topics & need to write the niche content as per industry norms. To help & provide relevant information to the community on trending technologies.

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