internship won’t let me use my work samples in a portfolio

A reader writes:

I intern at a high-end design company where we create one-of-a-kind visual art. I am an unpaid intern. The studio manager has told me that despite me creating artwork for the company, I have no rights to use it in my portfolio ever. She also said that many of the techniques I’ve learned at the internship I cannot use when I move on. This was when my internship was ending and I wanted samples for my print portfolio. Is this true?

I obviously would steer away from copying work I’ve done to use at another company, but as far as my portfolio goes, I feel like I should be able to show people photographs and samples of what I’ve worked on while I was at the company. It isn’t really possible for me to recreate the work I’ve done outside of the studio because I don’t have the resources. They are using painting and drawings that I created with my own hands and then used their resources and guidance to reproduce. Many of these samples are what they show to clients to give them a sense of the studio’s capabilities.

Essentially, my question is, what can an unpaid art studio intern expect in terms of being able to show physical representation of the work they’ve done?

It’s true that the work that you create for your employer belongs to them, and they say how it can be used.

But it’s pretty unusual for an employer to refuse to let you use samples of your work in a portfolio, particularly when it’s artwork (as opposed to, say, confidential company documents that could contain trade secrets or sensitive client information). Unusual, but with in their rights to do — because, again, they own the work you produced while employed by them. (Of course, I’m not sure how they’d know if you included samples of your work in your portfolio, as long as you don’t put it online — so you might choose to go ahead and put it in a hard-copy portfolio to show to prospective employers anyway.)

But as far as owning skills and work techniques that you developed while working there? I’d need to know more about exactly what those techniques are, but in most cases they shouldn’t be able to prohibit you from using those again — unless the specific techniques are patented or you signed an agreement to that effect at some point. (There might be other exceptions to that; lawyers, feel free to weigh in.)

Overall, the situation sounds shady. If they have good reason for these unusually strict requirements, they should have filled you in before you took the internship so that you could have decided if you were interested in working on such atypical conditions. You might not have taken the position if you’d known. Or maybe you would have, but I’m sure you would have felt better about the whole thing if you’d agreed to it up-front, rather than having it mentioned to you afterwards.

Oh, and hey, while we’re on the subject of what they can and can’t do, if they’re a for-profit company, they probably can’t have unpaid internships, at least not the kind it sounds like you have. Unpaid labor at for-profit employers is illegal unless the net benefit is to the worker — and it sounds like they’re profiting quite a bit from your labor. (Of course, this law is broken all the time, generally without consequence, but it’s worth being aware of, particularly if they’re going to jerk you around on other issues.)

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