Advice on client request for raw files

Hello fellow creatives, I’m in need of some good advice. Here’s the story. I run my own small graphic design business from home and a dear client of mine of many years believes I may I’m one day be zapped by aliens and all our years of work will be lost (not his exact words of course). Even after assuring him that I have backups and safety mechanisms in place he still insists on having a backup of his own of everything “Only for safety and security purposes, not for anyone to use”. My alarm bells are ringing a little, but I’m quite certain it comes from a genuine place and only wan’t the files for his security. I’m not sure what the general protocol is for handing over files to existing clients, but either way, I’d still prefer to hand over any raw files only on the closure of our business relationship – whenever that may occur, with a negotiated release fee, but in the meantime, I think the files are my property and should stay with me. :thinking:

Is this fair? How I do I best put this forward gracefully and without seeming unreasonable? Is there an alternative or compromise?

Your thoughts would be very welcome!

You could always give him a copy of everything but on a password protected drive. He will complain if he tries to access it, but he says it’s just for backup not to use. If he complains you will know he’s lying.

That’s a good option! Thanks!

Did you have a contract? Did the contract specify the deliverables? If so, and the deliverables didn’t include the source files, you own them and your client has no legal claim to them.

If there was no contract, it gets messier. But the way US copyright laws are written, the creator (you, in this case) or the creator’s employer (not relevant in this case) own the copyright unless it’s transferred to the client.

In either case, your client is asking for property that doesn’t belong to him. He likely doesn’t realize this. Clients often assume they automatically own everything, when in reality, they only own usage rights unless the contract specifies otherwise.

Of course, the problem doesn’t end with who legally owns what. You probably don’t want to offend your client, so it really boils down to how strongly you feel about it.

Also keep in mind that there might be parts of the work that you can’t legally give to your client. For example, you can’t legally hand over fonts or stock art if the license you used doesn’t permit it.

I can sympathize with your client’s concerns, however. Even short of space aliens abducting you or zapping the files, your client has a big investment in something that he doesn’t control, which makes him nervous. He’s looking for you to soothe his worries. You can choose to tell him to forget it. You can charge him a fee. Or you can just tell him, fine, here are the files (with or without strings attached) — minus the fonts and whatever else you can’t legally hand over.


Yes, it’s a very open ended situation isn’t it. No contracts were created in the beginning, so it’s decision time! I’m terrible at confrontation so I’ll have to practice my big voice in the mirror before Wednesday’s meeting… or maybe keep the peace and do the hand over. Thanks so much for your valuable feedback, great advice and food for thought. :slight_smile:

When you buy a house, you get a house. You don’t get to keep the tools and equipment used to build the house.

My PSD, AI and INDD files are the tools I use to produce the deliverable, which in my case, is always PDF, and sometimes commercially printed pieces I’ve brokered. Unless a client has requested it in advance, I don’t turn over the tools, and I write that in the contract.

Always have contracts. The contracts should spell out exactly what you will deliver, so there is no confusion. Confused clients often turn into lost clients.

A copy of the The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines will help you with contracts in the future.

Did he say he wanted your PSD, AI and INDD files, or did he just say he wants everything? If he just said everything, I would make PDFs of everything I’ve done and put those on a thumb drive and give that to him and say this is all the projects. If he comes back and says you didn’t give him the native files, then tell him those are proprietary tools you don’t let go of, and if he wants to make changes he can do that to the PDFs.


Thanks so much for taking the time to offer you thoughts, really appreciate it. Straight up, I’ve never had a contract with this client, we’ve grown together from small to large – but I think it’s a priority to make that happen. Not sure if it’s weird to introduce a contract with him at this stage though? I think offering all PDFs rather than all the native files is a brilliant work around and compromise. Thanks heaps! :blush:

Data loss is a real concern. I’d bet he got personally burned which is why he’s hypersensitive. Alien intervention notwithstanding, I’ve known designers who have lost client files, due to hardware theft, fire, and unintentional overwriting, and from what they say, telling a long time client that 10 or 20 years of files are gone is a brutal conversation.

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Not really. Files are gone they are gone. Simple as that. No obligation to hand them over unless it’s in the contract.

Technically I only keep backups for 2 years.
You can pay me money to go back into archives with little to no guarantee I will find anything (I get paid regardless because it is billable time to look.)

Same here. I’ll occasionally go through hard drives and backups. If something’s more than two years old, I’ll either delete it or archive it based on how I feel at the moment. For old files, on old media built with old software on old computers, I make no guarantees. I try to keep files from active clients for longer than that, but if I haven’t heard from a client in over two years, it’ll be hit or miss (usually miss).

Wow. Maybe my archiving is overkill. I archive all of my jobs. Hard drives are so cheap these days (or cloud storage if your prefer), that I don’t have a big problem doing so. I keep one set of files locally for easy access and one off site should a serious loss occur. I know there are some jobs that will never, ever get requested, but it’s not worth my time to weed through them job-by-job to determine what I should save and not save; and I don’t want to completely trash all files that are over XX years old. Not too long ago, I had a client reach out needing files for a logo I designed over 10 years ago. Glad I had them.


I used to have a 2TB wireless harddrive for backing up my stuff to. It was great - the files just whizzed through the air to the wireless hard drive once in range and on the same network.

Nowadays, I just use dropbox and it’s fine. I got a load of referrals early on and it bumped up my storage for free - this was years ago - haven’t needed to buy it - so dropbox for me is free, I don’t know how much storage I have, but seems to be enough for now.

I’ve been looking at the home server thing again there’s a 40TB cloud server that interests me, it’s not that expensive. About 2.5k.

But would be an interesting solution.

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One of my weak points is organizing things and keeping records. I do what’s necessary, but it’s a struggle sometimes.

As for throwing things away, it’s hit and miss (like most of my organizational activities), but I’ll always save the essentials. For example, if I had a year’s-old logo design project, I’d likely throw out everything except the final vector files — everything else is just clutter.

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I would suggest that the benefit of hanging on to client files isn’t in the practicality, because very few want to revisit projects that are more than 3 years old. The gain comes from client psychology, their perception of me as a person that has a long term interest in the success of their business, and is organized, methodical, protective of their creative investments.

I’ve worked with my all my major clients for years, and my contacts within those organizations change every 3 years or so. People leave, or get promoted, or change positions. The new person doesn’t have a record of the marketing the previous person did. They constantly lose assets like logos, photos, pdfs from campaigns. Thousands of dollars of stuff doesn’t get filed on their server, and then their computers are replaced and it’s gone. Give me a few minutes and I can pull up any project I’ve ever done for them, and we can jump back into it. It’s a powerful subconscious message about your attentiveness to their needs.

I started work on a catalog this week. The client asked me when the last time they featured a particular product on the cover. Within a few minutes I looked through my morgue and gave them dates of the last 4 times, going back 12 years, and showed them the covers, since they’ve lost those over the years. This isn’t the 90s. Storage is cheap, and it’s an easy way to flex and impress clients.


Yep. :+1:

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My archive is extensive but poorly catalogued. I keep saying someday that I’ll OCR the printed disk catalogs into something searchable. So while I might have something from say 2004, finding the correct disk to pull and finding it on the disk is a chore that we charge for. Likely as not, I will have the job. But if it was done in Quark or Freehand? Yer on yer own.

Not too long ago, I had to fire up an old Zip drive cartridge reader and a pre-Catalina machine to go through a box of stuff from 1998. Surprisingly, all of those zips still worked. But this was for a potentially very large contract and totally worth the effort. Plus what a trip down memory lane! When whole jobs came in on 3.5" floppies and the internet barely existed.
Even funnier, those zips were older than my current shop assistant, LOL!
At least I keep trying to tell myself it’s funny…


PDF’s are a really good option. You really are on a fence here, But, in my 50-years of experience in this business, when a client asks for raw files, you are on the way out.

And didn’t we feel spoilt for size when we moved from a 3.5 floppy to a 100mb Zip disk! :laughing:

Hmmm, I have every client file I’ve ever produced. But let me qualify that claim by adding a great deal of my career has been spent specializing in, for lack of better terms, “Engineering Communications”. Among other things, that means my work output (technical documents) is archived in the same way Engineers document and archive every iteration of their work output. Typically, the documents I produce live on for the life of the product of which they are a part, and remain for a decade after the product is discontinued. Over that life cycle, they may be revised or replaced many times as the product itself is improved, refined, enters new markets, etc., and all that history is also retained and documented for protections from liability. Archival integrity and file structural/naming conventions have always been a part of how I do things, and it carried over to the more Marketing oriented side of my client work.

I’d say the same, except I’d characterize the files as “ingredients” rather than tools, and in my case, the client owns them the moment I name them. I’m the chef, but the restaurant owns the recipe and the ingredients, so even if I drop dead an hour from now, their ability to produce the product isn’t compromised.

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