12 Steps Freelancers Can Take to Protect their Intellectual Property Rights

8 min read

Some publishers will allow you to create a contract that lets you reuse your content at other publications. ~ Eric Novinson, Founder, This Is Accounting Automation


In a world where freelancers must vigilantly safeguard their creative output, we’ve gathered twelve expert insights on fortifying intellectual property rights. From Intellectual Property Attorneys advising to specify IP rights in contracts to COOs recommending to use notarized self-mail for proof, discover the essential steps to protect your work and maintain control over your intellectual assets.

  • Specify IP Rights in Contracts
  • Implement Watermarking for Copyright
  • Draft Custom Non-Disclosure Agreements
  • Customize IP Ownership Contracts
  • Consult Professionals for IP Advice
  • Register Copyright for Legal Protection
  • Choose Clients Offering IP Control
  • Protect Ideas with Cautious Client Interactions
  • Archive Work for IP Documentation
  • Exempt IP in CIIAA Agreements
  • Define IP Terms in Client Agreements
  • Use Notarized Self-Mail for Proof

Specify IP Rights in Contracts

Determine if you wish to retain the intellectual property rights of the work you create. The key is to clearly understand the relationship between yourself and the contracting party that hired you. 

For example, if you are a software developer, were you just a hired gun that drafted code, and are you okay with relinquishing any and all IP rights in the future, or do you wish to be a co-inventor or co-author of a patent or copyright that covers the work you contributed to? If so, that relationship needs to be outlined in a written agreement with specific provisions solidifying that relationship.

Michael Cohen, Intellectual Property Attorney, Cohen IP Law Group PC

Implement Watermarking for Copyright

Watermarking is a good strategy for a freelancer to protect their intellectual property rights. Superimposing watermarks on text and images ensures the only way to use the work is through the creator.

Watermarking is a vital tool for designing copyrights, as it enhances versatility for its application and use. There is a need to address the question of who has rights to content. Enhancing the transfer of contracts and assigning rights to intellectual property is crucial. Through watermarks, it becomes easy for freelancers to enforce their copyrights and enhance their branding. Irrespective of the field, watermarking works is a proactive step to protect intellectual property rights.

Jack Vivian, Chief Technology Officer, Increditools

Draft Custom Non-Disclosure Agreements

Build a legally binding Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) to keep your trade secrets and work contractually protected. NDAs aren’t just a great tool to use with clients but also with potential clients who haven’t signed up for your services yet—if you’re sharing sensitive information or processes with them as you work to land their business, they need to sign an NDA.

NDAs don’t need to be standardized, so create a custom contract to suit the needs of each freelancing job you may take. Clearly outline the information under protection and the punishment for breaking the contract.

Hardy Desai, Founder, Supple Digital

Customize IP Ownership Contracts

Your clients are going to want some access to your IP; otherwise, your work has no real value to offer them. But that doesn’t mean you need to give the ownership of your IP away to every client who signs up for your services—you just need to be on the same page, literally.

Draft service contracts that outline who owns any IP you create through your work with a client, including whether they have exclusive rights to use the IP or limits on those rights. This shouldn’t be a blanket contract template that clients sign but a document you customize for each job.

David Janovic, Founder and CEO, RJ Living

Consult Professionals for IP Advice

Seek professional legal advice to safeguard your work. A professional is called a professional for a reason. Once the other party uses your work without your consent, you can merely ask them to remove it if there’s no legal contract signed. Mostly, this doesn’t work. 

On the other hand, if you have sought legal advice, they can tell you how to proceed with the contract and what important information should be included. They can even help you draft a contract. It will cost for a consultation, but it’s far better than losing your rights in the end.

Jean Christophe Gabler, Founder, Yogi Times

Register Copyright for Legal Protection

Copyright symbol in gold on a blue background with a wavy design; image by TheDigitalArtist, via Pixabay.com.

Copyright registration provides freelancers with legal protection for their work. Although copyright is inherent to creative works, it is strongly recommended to properly register them with the appropriate national authorities to enhance their protection against infringement. In most cases, you’ll need to send in a hard copy of the piece along with the payment. 

As a freelancer, you have the legal right to dispute any unauthorized use or replication of your work through registered copyright. Particularly for writers, photographers, and digital artists, this is a must-have for their work. Furthermore, being explicit about your work’s copyright status (for instance, “© [Year] [Your Name]”) acts as a preventative measure to highlight your rights.

Cindi Keller, Communications Coordinator, The Criminal Defense Firm

Choose Clients Offering IP Control

Consider selecting clients that will give you control over your contract terms. Many clients ask for work-for-hire so they obtain all the intellectual property rights to the content that you create for them. However, some publishers will allow you to create a contract that lets you reuse your content at other publications.

Eric Novinson, Founder, This Is Accounting Automation

Protect Ideas with Cautious Client Interactions

Be very careful when sharing ideas with others without a client contract in place, because there are gray areas in copyright law around protecting ideas. You have the right to copyright and protect a specific way you’ve expressed an idea, but not the idea itself. 

So, if you have a great business or project idea, it’s best to keep it under wraps until you’ve either completed it yourself or established enough details to make it your “own” and earn intellectual ownership.

Robert Kaskel, Chief People Officer, Checkr

Archive Work for IP Documentation

One should safeguard intellectual property by documenting and archiving their work. Create a comprehensive portfolio showcasing completed projects, including drafts, revisions, and communication records. 

Use timestamps, watermarks, and digital certificates for extra protection. Ensure clear contractual agreements with clients about ownership and usage rights. Encryption and password protection are necessary for sensitive files in this digital world. Secure an archive with regular updates and backups of your creative assets. 

With this step, you fortify your intellectual property rights and support your professional credibility in the competitive freelance landscape.

Faizan Khan, Public Relations and Content Marketing Specialist, Ubuy UK

Exempt IP in CIIAA Agreements

Many companies utilize CIIAA (Confidential Information Inventions Assignment Agreement) forms with employees and freelancers alike. 

Good CIIAA agreements include an appendix where the employee or freelancer can specify pieces of intellectual property that should remain exempt from the agreement. Active freelancers should have this list ready to go, and they should always request its addition to any CIIAA form.

Trevor Ewen, COO, QBench

Define IP Terms in Client Agreements

In intellectual property protection, a key strategy for freelancers is to clearly define the ownership terms in their agreements with customers. Before commencing work, they should ensure that agreements explicitly state how intellectual property is handled. This clarity prevents misunderstandings and disputes down the line. 

Once proper agreements are in place, freelancers should monitor the market for potential infringements. Last, where applicable, freelancers should consider protecting their rights by registering copyrights, trademarks, and even patents in some cases to safeguard their creations and further solidify their intellectual property protection.

Mads Viborg Jørgensen, CEO and Co-Founder, PatentRenewal.com

Use Notarized Self-Mail for Proof

As a legal safeguard to protect intellectual property, freelancers can use the “Notarized Self-Mail Technique.” 

Send a detailed description, design, or document to yourself via certified mail before disclosing or sharing any proprietary work. Keep the unopened package once it arrives. The package’s postmark serves as government-stamped, time-verified proof of the content’s existence on a specific date. In the event of a dispute, this notarized self-mail can be used in court to prove the originality and creation date of your intellectual property. 

While it is not a replacement for formal registration, it does provide an additional layer of protection, particularly for freelancers who may not have the resources for extensive legal measures.

Chetan Patil, Owner, Patil Law

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