"selling someone a design" is when you assign the copyright.
However, when you design something to specifications, it's still
yours until that copyright assignment is done.
I’m assuming that Al’s assessment is correct - as with all things
factual, there’s nothing to argue about. But the topic is important
to all artists and I would maintain the the concept is the same,
even if the language varies.
You are an artist, and you make a painting. You own that painting,
and you also own the copyright - it cannot be reproduced without
Then you get a job at Pixar, doing paintings for movies. The
copyright for your paintings belongs to Pixar, because you are an
artist “for hire”. You are paid by Pixar to paint FOR THEM. You can
still paint your own stuff at home, but while you’re at work, they
own it. This is important - it’s even more important in engineering
So, you’re a metalsmith - you make a piece of jewelry. Just like the
painting, you own it and also the copyright. Here is where I’m not
certain that Al really knows what he says, which is beside the point
(and no argument). If you get a job designing for Tiffany’s, the
copyright of your work belongs to Tiffany’s for the same reason -
you are a designer “for hire” - they are paying you to design for
them… Whether you are for hire or you are "assigning the copyright"
is the same - they own it.
Now, perhaps Al is correct in the language, and it is not
technically called “for hire”, though I was taught that it is. The
point is that the end result is the same, regardless of language.
When somebody pays you to make art in a certain framework, the art
and righta belong to them. Al is also correct in that if you simply
do a custom order, you don’t assign the copyright, you simply sell
the piece and you retain the copyright. That’s why it’s so important
to understand the concepts.
When you say, “I’ll make you a piece of jewelry”, then you simply do
that and they get the jewelry and you get the copyright. When you
say, “I’ll make a design and sell it to you.” then the copyright
goes with the design - else why buy it? Whether it is “for hire” (a
legal term) or “assignment of copyright” is legalese, because the
end result is the same - the law treats the copyright holder as the
artist, even if they paid for it from the actual artist.
And as another pointed out today, all of this is “the default” laws
- anything can be changed by mutual agreements and contracts. You
can work for Pixar and retain the rights if they agree to that.
And that is (the original question) why charging for design work is
a slippery slope. “I paid for the design work, so where’s my
design?” Here’s the piece, but where’s my design? I paid for
it…Better, IMO, to just say, “I’ll make you a piece, and this
is what it will cost.”
And I think much of this confusion comes from some people not
understanding in a real way that every work has a construct behind
it that is called, “The design”, even if it may just seem like a
piece of jewelry. Most people can just chug along making stuff -
it’s when a shop owner comes and asks you to make a line and you
say, “I’m going to charge you for design work” that all of this
becomes most important.