This blog post is part of the #GreatDebate series on content ownership. Learn more about the debate here.

I’m going to write this post for HubSpot. Their readers rock (you know that).

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But grrrr. Their ruthless editorial staff may justslash and thrash it, change the headline to anything they damn well please, and publish it with my name on it.

Fair? Foul? Whose article is this?

Clearly, with my name on it we’re talking about my personal brand, right? Sure, it’s their audience and so their editor’s job is to reflect their company’s brand and voice. But, but, but … if my reputation is on the line, shouldn’t I have the final word on a piece composed of my words?

And that's just for guest blogging. What about the clients that pay the bills? I’m going to pour my 25 years of experience and a good portion of my remaining brain cells into a piece of killer content. They’ll take all the credit. I’d like to show it off as mine, but it’s not. Is it?

When talking with Ginny at HubSpot about tricky content ownership issues, I fielded tough questions like these. It’s not the first time I've gotten them either. So I thought I’d take a stab at answering them.

Get this straight though: I’m not an attorney. And though I’ve been in the freelance copywriting game for decades, I’d be lying if I told you that I ever read a single copyright law. Even if I did, I wouldn’t understand them.

But look, in the digital world, intellectual property can get pretty fuzzy. So if you’re looking for the definitive answers to the ownership questions freelancers often face -- and will face in the future -- I’m bound to let you down. Rather than tell you what to do, I’m going to tell you how things work in the lawless land of online publishing so you can pick a path yourself.

Content isn't about you.

Us freelance folks want to build our personal brand, enhance our authority, and further our careers -- but first and foremost, we want to do right by our partners and clients.

Generally, money talks. As a freelancer, when you’re paid to write something for a client, the client should own it. They could edit it. They could re-use it. They could choose not to offer you a byline. And they’ll do all of the above. Expect as much.

That being said, the transaction of content isn't always so clear-cut.

What kind of ownership challenges can arise?

If you like the finished product …

You’ll want to show it off as yours. Make it a portfolio piece. Link to it. Promote it on your blog or social media. Is that taboo? No. Is it going to be a problem? It could be, depending on the client.

You might make it clear from the get-go you intend to promote the work. At this point, you’re bound to hear the client’s policy on the matter. You don’t like what you learn? Fair enough. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Move on.

You might be told you cannot promote the work. The client has his reasons. End of story.

You might be told you’re welcome to promote it how you please. All is peachy.

You might not be told anything -- and this could be where it gets sticky.

It's like painting houses for a living. After you finish the job, the paint’s no longer yours. You may assume you can photograph the freshly painted house and show prospective clients, but you can't take the paint off the house to promote yourself.

In the case of both the painted house and the written marketing work, the smart approach is to discuss your intentions up-front. While your objective in showing off the work you did for a client is to gain from it, the outcome should be a win-win.

Maybe you’d rather forgo the permission thing and simply do what you please. You could. Of course, you’ll risk getting fired if you get found out. If the client objects, you really should respond as requested.

I recommend sending a note to the client as a courtesy. Chances are, you’ll be issue-free.

If you don’t like the finished product …

No byline, author box or attribution -- no problem, right? Cash the check and move on. Your copy is a product and you sold it.

But what if your paying client gave you credit but also gave your work a nasty case of the uglies? You’re pissed. Believe me, I know.

I wish you luck with this one. They have the right to publish as they see fit. However, I don’t believe you’d be wrong to make one of the following requests:

  1. Hi client. Please remove my author credit and claim what’s yours as yours.
  2. Compromise. Work together on a solution you can both live with.

So you want to promote "your" content ... what next?

If you don't own the content you create for a client (and unless you agreed in advance that you do, you don’t), how do you promote yourself?

  • You could revise the content. Remove company mentions. Change the headline and significant passages. Strong writers should have no problem doing this.
  • You could publish less than the entire piece. Extract small sections or passages for your promotional efforts.
  • You could obscure the client company by removing, blurring, or blacking out specific elements. This is kind of a wimpy approach, so it’s a last resort.

I was asked if these types of ownership issues affect my day-to-day work. No. I write a lot of different things for a lot of different clients, so though I may want to promote the good stuff, I don’t need to.

But maybe you do. Perhaps you’re in the early stages of your career and building a portfolio of your work. Or you’ve been around awhile, but haven’t yet had the chance to claim experience in a new area.

If you need that byline, get creative. If you know you need a byline or credit, why not reduce your rate in exchange for it? That may fly. Better yet, instead of charging less, how about you offer to deliver more? You could offer to write an additional piece gratis as a show of gratitude for the client’s consideration to credit you for your work.

To freelance or not to freelance.

You might have wanted to learn from this article how to come out on top in every scenario. Sorry. The words you write for paying clients should become their words and property.

But c’mon now. It’s not a battle. We all want variations of the same thing. Try to ask your clients to understand you don’t want to own the work, but you do want to show it off. Then, tell them what they want to hear …

Your article/ebook/video/insert-content-type-here is going to be beyond great. It’s going to be poetic, persuasive, and all the things you envision. I’m doing it for you. I thank you for the trust you’ve put in me. If I may, I’ll show it to my other clients and prospects as an example of what a freelance writer is capable of creating when his or her client is out-of-the-park awesome.

What do you think? Should freelancers have more or less freedom when creating content for clients? Share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag, #greatdebate, or tweet directly in the stream below.

Barry Feldman is president of Feldman Creative. He creates compelling content by telling stories. He's a content marketing strategist, copywriter, creative director, speaker, and author. He also specializes in creating websites, ebooks, and integrated online marketing programs. You can follow him on Twitter @FeldmanCreative.

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Originally published Dec 3, 2013 2:00:00 PM, updated November 22 2017