A client of mine has requested the original format of my documentation. I've never been asked this before and so I don't really have a policy yet in this regard.

I don't really want the client to be able to edit my stuff, since they'll be able to take my name and the copyright out, etc. but I have absolutely no idea what the standard industry practice is.

Just to clarify: The intention of this question was just to find out if there are situations where handing over original versions of documentation to a client is a reasonable thing to do. Jmac has pointed out that I should be asking if it reasonable, rather than standard, which I think is correct.

I come from a background in the aerospace/defence industry where documentation (and everything!) is very closely regarded and would NEVER have handed over the original documentation to a client. I had absolutely no idea to what extent this applied outside of that particular industry.

  • 1
    Does your output fall under "work for hire" designation? What does your contract say?
    – jcmeloni
    May 17 '13 at 1:56
  • The governing issue here is how your employment contract and applicable laws define Intellectual Property and the protections afforded. May 17 '13 at 1:58
  • I'm working in a freelance capacity. The contract is an NDA saying that the client can't distribute my source code to other people without my permission.
    – user5621
    May 17 '13 at 2:05
  • 1) Are you obligated to honour the request? 2)Have you asked what they want it for?
    – kolossus
    May 17 '13 at 5:27
  • 1
    This question is about your specific work practice not a general workplace question. May 17 '13 at 13:30

Standard is Silly

You are a freelancer. The benefit you provide over more "standard" companies is that you are able to be flexible since you are the final decision-maker on everything. Refusing a request because it isn't "standard" is a great way to shoot yourself in the foot.

Reasonable is Right

Your question shouldn't be if the request is standard, it should be whether the request is reasonable.

What if they want to have the original documentation to use portions in a presentation to top management to buy 1,000 copies of your product? Standard or not, you'd probably be best off providing them what they need (or go one up and offer to help them out providing even more information if they need it).

You'll Never Know if you Don't Ask

What's missing from your question is what the customer wants the documentation for. If they just want to steal your product, it is less work to edit the PDF documentation than it is to hijack your code in most likelihood. So what do they want the original documentation for?

The best way to figure out if their request is reasonable is to talk to them. In the time it took you to write out this question on whether or not it is standard, you could have talked to the customer, figured out what they want it for, and made a decision on whether or not to provide it.

  • Standard is silly? I beg to differ. Just ask this guy how far you'll go without setting standards/boundaries with a client
    – kolossus
    May 17 '13 at 6:12
  • 1
    Perhaps I wasn't clear. I did not mean "don't set boundaries", I meant "doing something just because it's 'standard' is silly". I am a big fan of setting boundaries, and if this client doesn't have a good reason to get the documentation, it's good to discuss either additional payment for the added service, or just turn down the request, but saying, "Sorry, that's not standard, so it's out of the question" is almost certainly not the appropriate approach here.
    – jmac
    May 17 '13 at 7:08
  • My goal was just to find out what other people do in this scenario. Naturally I'm not going to just blindly reply to the client with a certain response because this website told me to! I'll make up my own mind at the end of the day.
    – user5621
    May 18 '13 at 6:38

The governing issue here is how your employment contract and applicable laws define Intellectual Property and the protections afforded to IP based on your nation / state of incorporation along with your client's jurisdictional location.

In the USA, all original works are automatically granted basic Trademark protections that are only as valuable as much as you can legally defend your ownership without a formally filed Trademark.

You certainly have to express your expectations and since we don't live in an idealistic world, you can secretly watermark your docs based on whatever format you're transmitting things as simplistic as white on white text (white font on matching white background) but that is easily detected and could possibly alienate your client.

In the past, I've used the request as an opportunity to expand my contract terms by asking them why they're making such an undue request. In addition, and it has served me well, I've been known to append specific text to the end of PDF's, Visio schematics and JPGS with Windows shell commands, like:

echo "This Original Work is authored by and the Property of YOURNAMEHERE and protected by all applicable trademarks as of this DATE" >> DELIVERABLE.PDF / jpg, etc.

You'd be amazed just how impervious contemporary file formats are and unable to display that mark even using traditional MetaFinders but you can retrieve the signatures with a strings command like:

strings.exe Deliverable.pdf / jpg, etc and your watermark will be the last line of the scrolling file output and resident as long as they keep leveraging your original works.

That's the kinda of stuff that silences Defense and Plantiff's lawyers and impresses even the most inept Judges if you ever have to litigate the matter.

  • What do you mean by "all original works are automatically granted basic Trademark"? I have never heard of this. Are you possibly mixing up "trademark" with "copyright"? Works are protected by copyright, while trademarks are for protecting, well, trade marks, i.e. brand names, brand designs etc.
    – sleske
    Apr 12 '16 at 7:32

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