Rights to unused concepts

Something that’s been knocking around in my head of late is what happens to the rights of all of those millions of unproduced products and concepts that are either kicked out during design rounds or, for whatever reason, never make it to the market. I’ve seen contracts that state that all work on a project becomes the intellectual property of the client after final delivery and payment, as well as those that only relinquish the rights of the final design. I’m curious to see how everyone out there handles this.

The answer is in your own question, it would be it’s dependent on the contract you are under as the designer.

In the corporate world, everything you do on their time is owned by them. If you are a consultant, it would be based on whatever terms you signed up for in a master service agreement or contract.

I was just trying to get a feel for which is more common in the consulting/freelance world.

Any work I have ever done as a freelancer, and any consultants who have ever done work for my company all designs/IP belongs to the client - with the IP/ownership rights transferred upon payment.

If someone had a contract that said they own the rights to anything you “don’t use” that would be a very subjective statement in court. For example, what if I didn’t choose to use your design, but 3 years from now dug it up and decided it would be great for another product, only to find out that it’s now on the shelves as something else? Would be interesting to see how anyone who uses that actually phrases it, and if their contract has stipulations specifically outlining under what circumstances that’s OK.

I’ve worked for firms where contracts clearly stated that only selected concepts belonged to the client. It is rare.


I can think of three scenarios that govern ownership of professional service work performed while under contract:

  1. A contracts’ terms and conditions between a company and a design services company would stipulate degree of ownership of work performed under the contract. I’ve reviewed a lot of design work contracts and not one of them was limited to ownership of the works’ final embodiment but rather included all the work performed under the contract.

  2. A non-disclosure agreement is often the first “contract” signed between companies and certainly will include clauses on ownership of work performed. An NDA is general service performance oriented, not specific project related.

  3. Federal legislation regarding ownership of intellectual property generated from contract service work would apply. Unfortunately, IP legislation is very commonly modified by governments, so what applies today is different several years from now.

The nature of your question is a very difficult area; however, considering the plethora of contract creative service work extant throughout the world, this is a well exercised field. It would be extremely bad form to reuse an abandoned concept between different companies. Taking inspiration from previous work and developing iterative design concept from previous abandoned work would be completely legitimate, and very common practice. This feeds into other discussion thread about “are unused concepts a waste?”