How To Make Sure You Can Show Work In Your Portfolio

Can’t say Title (confidential) by Sebas & Clim

You’re in the midst of production — the style frames you designed were approved, the work-in-progress animations you’ve sent along to the client were received well, and you’re rapidly approaching the deadline. You’re really happy with how the job looks, and everything is working smoothly. The client is happy, too. This will be a great piece for your portfolio!

But what happens when your client doesn’t want you to use the finished work in your portfolio?

The Problem:

Asking on Twitter, I got a ton of responses from artists who, through one set of circumstances or another, did great work they were proud of but were asked (either by the studio they worked with or by the end client) not to post it — and not always politely! Lots of those issues are unresolved, with the artists just backing down and not wanting to get into a fight with the studios and clients who hire them. Lots of those jobs will never see the light of day, since the clients who own them don’t want to put them out. But if you can retain the copyright to the work, you may be able to salvage something out of it, or re-use your hard work on your own project.

Too often, when you are on staff or freelancing, eager to do the work, you rush into a project without reading all the details of the contract. This is where artists get burned. It’s always a good idea to read your contracts and deal memos through thoroughly, speak up to the client or studio and make sure to declare your desire to show off your work as early in the process as possible. Amend any part of the contract you want to change before any work on the job is done.

Many contracts have a work-for-hire clause that automatically assigns the copyright of any work they create to the employer. This can be negotiated — if you wish to challenge it — but it’s fairly standard for most contracts. This also means that you may not have the ability to show any of you work on your own site or post about it online. And, of course, many studios have adopted specific policies on how employees can use the work they do while at a company on their reels and sites, which is why you see all those production company bugs on artist’s montages.

What to Do

Daniel Savage, who is one designer that got burned after working for six weeks on a project that he now can’t show said, “My advice, besides the obvious of READING a contract, is if you see something like that on a contract, cross it off and initial. IF they say no and you need the money, demand a huge pay increase. Otherwise don’t work with them, there is plenty of work to go around not to put up with that crap.”

Sebas & Clim also dealt with the same problem recently. “The possibility of showing the project or not is always one of our first questions. The budget changes radically if something will have to be completely secret or not … 90% of our work came because someone saw our [previous] projects,” they said.

Since their project, whose title remains confidential, went well, and since they have a good relationship with the client, they asked if they could use it in their portfolio without any reference to the brand. The client agreed, and they used the piece without voiceover and logos, resulting in an impressive animation showpiece for themselves.

Many graphic designers and illustrators also deal with these issues, but their industry works a bit differently than ours. They will often retain the copyright of a piece of artwork, but specifically license it out to clients for specific uses. Much of the advice and standards in the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook deal specifically with how to negotiate these type of contracts. And the AIGA has a section in the explanation of its Standard Form of Agreement For Design Services that notes:

You’ll also want to be able to show and explain portions of the completed project to other companies when you are pitching new business. Sometimes clients who are in highly competitive industries have concerns about this. They may ask for the right to review and approve such promotional activity on a case-by-case basis. If you have licensed the final art to the client rather than making a full assignment of rights, and the work does not fall within the category of work-for-hire (defined below), you are legally entitled to show the work in your portfolio. As a professional courtesy, however, you will want to be sensitive to client concerns.

On a recent freelance job I worked on, I managed to solve this whole problem easily and straightforwardly, by simply by asking the producer to insert one sentence into the contract. It read, “Company agrees that [NAME] may show the artwork created by him for Company on personal marketing reels and on his web site at [URL] only.” So that’s my advice. Get it in writing.

More on this topic:
Jessica Hische – The Dark Art of Pricing
Graphic Artist Guild – Can I Show My Work in My Portfolio When I Don’t Own the Rights Anymore?
AIGA – Standard Form of Agreement For Design Services
Docracy – The Collective Legal Guide For Designers (Contract Samples)
Motionographer – Credit Where Credit Is Due

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Good post, this happend to me a couple years ago when I was freelancing at an agency as well. I was for a couple month only to find out I couldn’t post any work.

Now when I take on new projects, this is the first question I ask.


we ususally put the sentence (sorry for my english) “All the work done by -company name or freelance name- for -client- will be used for self promotion” in our quotations…right next to the payment conditions. If the client says no…we increase the price. But i suggest to tell them as soon as possible.


i forgot…. if they sign the quotation and they don’t read those lines…. it’s their problem..not mine. i have the right to use it. Signatures are important.


Since some of the clients what don’t like is having the work online but not necessarily shown to other creatives, you can always password protect those projects so that you can still show them to potential clients and studios.

This option is better than not showing any work.


My agency fired somebody TODAY for having posting work online that the client found. Big no-no.


Most studios I have worked for have been totally fine with anyone who contributes to a piece using it for their portfolio (as long as they aren’t taking credit for something they didn’t do). With feature films, you need to wait until the movie is released, and it’s appreciated if you embed the studio’s logo in whatever you do.

Mike Tosetto

I worked at a small studio for nearly 5 years and did the majority of the graphic design and motion design. When I left they wouldn’t let me show ANY work on my website… they even threatened a lawsuit. Absolute joke! i think if the work is public and credit is given where credit is due, an artist should be able to show the work they’ve done.

Not Right

After a similar predicament, I contacted 2 lawyers about this very thing myself. According to them, Mike, you have a right to a resume.

Courts dont see you as the bad guy. Unless you are actually cloning and reselling. This myth must be put to rest.

Sure they can try or threaten to sue you but they would 99% likely not win. Depends on your industry. But the hassle and intimidation they use causes fear. Courts would see you as an honest guy trying to have a resume.

The fact they would try to block you from a resume is disgusting bully behavior.

For example, people that literally steal stuff still win many of those cases. A portfolio is a resume not a pirated secret movie if i can see it everywhere.

Only suckers and legally naive believe such threats.

At worse case, Lawyers recommend breaking the work up into peices and giving credit to shop. That should be enough. But depending, you dont neccessarily have to.

Thank god for this article and discussion. Long over due on motionographer. I hear people so in the dark about their rights. How can they bully a guy like mike after 5 yrs and threaten him with a lawsuit. For wanting an honest resume.

Pure tyranny at work.

Not Right

To properly clarify my analogy about others who literally “steal stuff”, google about the Greatful Dead poster copyright case.

And other cases like it.

The defendant had literally stolen the Greatful Dead posters for reselling in a book. Courts saw that as okay and found him innocent on fair use.

So why on earth would a court prosecute a young motion designer? It’s simple, they wouldn’t.

This crap has to stop. I’m not going to stop until my brothers and sisters know their rights. We work way to hard for this intimidation abuse. I’m not a lawyer but my advice is coming from 2 lawyers who specialize in copyright. Don’t listen to another type of lawyer. They don’t know about copyright like a specialist does.

I’m not saying people should blindly post works, but they should find out the leverage they actually have and make an ethical decision from there.

Mike Tosetto

‘Not Right on’, great to read your comments. I almost felt guilty at the time as I’d been doing all this work on the side because I had a feeling the day would come where I wouldn’t be able to use any of the work I’d been doing at this particular studio.

I’m so lucky I secretly kept myself busy on the side as it gave me a portfolio I could use and was like the ‘ace up my sleeve’ I needed when I left. Man, it felt good to pull it out on them ;)

I’ve since been able to build a portfolio I’m very proud of and the place I work now (Interbrand Australia) are very encouraging of showing work, side projects and even freelance work. So long as credit is given to the studio and peers who also worked on the project, which is completely fair enough.

I’m really glad I have nothing to do with that studio anymore and would never work for people like that again. Their selfishness is disgraceful.

Great thread by the way. Really important to talk about this stuff.



I keep all my finished work on Wiredrive. When I finish projects that clients do not want made public, which seems to be occurring more frequently nowadays – no big deal. When doing sales & talking about recent projects to prospective clients, I will send them a link to the work via Wiredrive, but have that link expire and disable them from forwarding or downloading. It’s been a great tool for me, as I still get to show off the work, but keep the previous client’s interests as well.

design_nerd (@design_nerd)

Anything big that you work on is most likely going to be shadowed by a non disclosure agreement. But if you are trying to show your work to get employed you should jump through the following hoops.

Password protect your reel and portfolio site. Then just share your work with a future possible employer. Yes, it is not convenient for you or the person viewing your work. But that Creative Directer that is going to potentially hire you will understand.

Bran Dougherty-Johnson

Kultnation, Joe and design_nerd I hear you about password-protecting your site or certain projects, or to show them privately. To my mind, that’s not really an acceptable solution. It’s just a workaround. It may satisfy your immediate needs, but doesn’t actually guarantee you anything. Better to negotiate the right and not have to hide stuff.

Plus, my portfolio is on the internet. That’s where I want it to be. Open to the world, so they can all see my work and come hire me. Hint, hint, HIRE ME.


Hey Bran, yes I agree with you and trust me I see your point; I never said it was a solution and as you adequately put it is indeed just a workaround.

My point here is that in order for this to really change, Client and Vendor relationship has to change from the unbalanced “I hire/pay you – you do/listen for/to me” to an equal collaborative and growing relationship between the two parts. In other words, as long as the client / studio feels is above and has rights over the vendor and his work (because he’s paying for it) this will hardly change.

It is a long and hard road in order to change this way of thinking because before changing it in our industry (or any) we need to re-establish new commercial and economic conceptions in our daily lives.

Bran Dougherty-Johnson

Yes, absolutely Vinny. Absolutely.

design_nerd (@design_nerd)

Yes, but so much of the industry is centered around non disclosure. You can’t be working on a campaign for a hot new phone from a major client and then share that work if the phone has not come out, or is never coming out, or the client wants their technology to be seen in a different way then what was presented at the time of your project.

Major brands are very protective of their image. With out them and their need to maintain a particular image, we would most likely be out of work.


Thats a good topic. 3 years ago we produced a shortfilm for a big american network based on one of our original concepts. We did this project for a small budget believing the film would be published online as agreed upon. Since then the film has not been published but the parties responsible at the network also will not allow us to publish our work at least on our own website. Also they don’t even answer anymore. That sucks!

Bran Dougherty-Johnson

Timbo, if publishing it online was a part of your contract, perhaps they are in breach of it? I’d talk to a lawyer and see what you can do in this situation if you want to share the work.

Not Right

Contact Lawyers for the Arts or similar organization in your area. You’d be suprised what’s possible in some cases.

Worse case, you may have rights to show trailer of bits even if they own copyright. As long as you dont sell it and just have on portfolio site.

Beyond posting seperated bits of it, you’ll need to have legalities of your contract evaluated. Lawyers will educate you.


Hey Guys, thanks for your comments. The 7 page contract says that the network is the author and owner of the Finished Piece. I think there’s no chance to avoid this point? Definitely a mistake we will never do again!

Not Right

Of course it says that. But you still need to look into the specifics of what that means legally. Don’t listen to the network, they’ll tell you anything.

In many cases regardless of who owns the copyright, you can very likely use pieces in your low key portfolio as long as it doesn’t damage the network.

I’m sure it’s an awesome piece, but doubt that your little short would even scuff the network by putting little pieces into a trailer, etc.

You tried to contact the network to negotiate within legal means, but they did not respond. Which is not fair to you after you put in so much. Think about it. You just got exploited since the project didn’t pay standard market rates. And now they don’t even have the decency to reply to you, even to discuss.

This angle of “pieces” was suggested by my lawyer at one point as a safe protected legal angle.

Pay something like a $35 registration fee and get a free 30min-1hr consultation through California Lawyers for the Arts.

Tell the lawyer everything about how the client isn’t responding, email the contract and they will advise. The minuscule $35 fee is worth it.

Very likely they can advise and find a compromise. It’s not as simple as “you can never use it ever” as you might be lead to believe. Please report back…


Not Right on, thanks for your attention! I’ll definitely start a new try to get our baby back … or at least some peaces.


I usually post all the work I designed and give the credit to the design company and client. That seems to be enough. Never really had any issues.
If they fight, then take to the court, like some people said above, it hardly means they will win the case plus nobody really have the time and energy to fight something so small and petty.

Some guy sitting at a computer

Something important to remember is that if you’re showcasing work you did for an agency/studio which has a NDA with their client, you could be in turn making that studio guilty of violating their agreement with the client. That in turn could mean that the agency/studio loses any opportunity of future work from that client. At the very least, it means you probably won’t be getting work from them again.
When thinking about our industry, don’t think of just the artists, but those entities that pay our checks as well.
This is why this disclosure should be made clear when work is started. In this case, it’s easier to ask for permission than it is to ask for forgiveness.

Wanting More

Guys, no offense but that’s a weak argument. Anything “could” happen. If you want to go down the list of possibilities. The odds of lighting strikes, etc.

If a studio loses a client over an employees personal portfolio site than that client was never solid to begin with. When they like the work, they stay.

All that is, is the agency/studio scapegoating on the artist. Someone needs the blame. Why not the artist. Yep.


This is the tip of the iceberg on the eternal argument over artist’s rights. Work for hire is abuse. Put a line in your contract about your right to show your work. If they won’t sign it, raise your price or respectfully turn them down. It sucks to lose work, but trust me for all the grief and disrespect you get from those kind of clients it’s not worth the paycheck.


Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Many times a client can’t grant you permission to show the work but will look the other way if you do. You as a freelancer are a tiny tiny fish in a huge ocean of noise and if you do show something that is grey sometimes it is worth the risk that nobody will care. If they do just take it down, or don’t. Whatever works.

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