Want to engage freelance help, but feel reluctant to give someone access to the nitty-gritty details? Collaboration takes trust, and trust takes time. But at the same time, business waits for nobody. By hiring well and proactively taking steps to ensure your information is protected, you can help boost your level of comfort.
Intellectual property (IP) can be a particular area of concern. Technically, IP refers to things you create—and it is protected by a number of laws, like copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret laws.
Most businesses have concerns that go beyond IP to include internal information in general, such as documents, data, and processes.
There are steps you can take—before you start your search for a freelancer, during the project, and once your project wraps up—to help. Here are seven things you can do to help put your mind at ease.
1. Start with legal protections
As Ashley Brewer, a business and branding attorney, explained on Forbes:
“As soon as you start taking steps to implement a business or product idea, such as incorporating, obtaining state or federal licenses, or securing production of a product, you should identify which aspects of your business and products are protectable.”
To start, that means connecting with a legal professional to register any trademarks, copyright, or patents.
Any agreements you enter with freelancers should specify who owns IP, as well as any work done with it. Other concerns you may need to address include electronic assets and exclusivity.
If you’re collaborating with a freelancer through the Upwork site, this is addressed in the Terms of Service as part of our mission to build trust and safety around online work:
“Once a freelancer receives payment for work completed on a project, our Terms of Service specify that ownership of that work transfers to the client. For details, see Section 8.6 of our User Agreement. It also explains that freelancers and clients can agree on different or additional terms.”
2. Create a NDA
While you’re getting legal assistance, you should also consider protecting yourself through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
A NDA is a confidentiality agreement between two or more parties, with each agreeing not to disclose any material, knowledge, or information that’s covered by the contract. Its use extends beyond freelancers and employees; consider including family, friends, and other partners who may be privy to confidential information.
3. Don’t shortcut the vetting process
The scope of your project may be limited, but that doesn’t mean you should cut back on your normal due diligence. “When we’re looking for a freelancer we do a lot of work up front—just as we would for an employee. The process isn’t really any different,” said Bittu Ahlawat, who leads Upwork’s mobile engineering team and works with freelance developers all over the world.
This means thoroughly vetting each freelancer and honing in on those with an established professional reputation: Previous experience, a proven track record, recommendations, referrals. Freelancer profiles on the Upwork site may reflect some of this past activity, but other experience can be just as relevant.
Ahlawat says feedback from previous clients can be particularly insightful: “It’s good to know what past clients have actually said. What was the quality of their work? Were there problems with communication? There’s a difference between yellow flags, which might be explained or addressed, and red flags.”
Create an awesome job post that attracts freelancers with the skills you need.
4. Own your documents—literally
It may be important for a freelancer to understand the context of what they’re doing, so they understand how it fits within your project and business as a whole. But they don’t necessarily need access to everything in order to do great work.
Here’s one old-school tip: If you don’t want to share access to a particular document or data set, create a duplicate copy and remove or redact any sensitive information before sharing it.
Tech tools also give you a lot of different options.
Apps like Google Docs are commonly used for collaboration, especially across distances. One key benefit is that you can own a document, which gives you control over who can access a file and whether they can view or edit it.
Why take on this extra bit of admin? If you create documents for a freelancer to work on, you can then remove access at any point.
Other apps offer different types of controls to file or folder owners. Dropbox, for example, allows you to share folders using a link that self-destructs after a set period of time. Box.com allows you to set different permissions and logs usage so you have a record of activity.
An additional option is to consider the types of files you share. For example, PDFs offer a number of different security features. You can:
- Secure your documents using a password
- Disable the ability to copy text and images
- Restrict document printing—or limit the resolution for printed copies
- Limit the type of changes someone can make to a document
5. Make use of version control systems
For IT projects in particular, a version control system can help you keep track of what other people are working on and backpedal if you need to. Guy Marion, CEO of version control host Codesion, describes version control as a safety net against human error and corruption: “[It] compiles a complete change history and a set of natural restore points within the repository, providing peace of mind for developers and project managers alike.”
Ahlawat’s mobile engineering team uses GitHub, a popular code repository that records all transactions on a user level. “Your organization may have 100s of repositories, but you can limit a developer’s access to the three they need for the project they’re working on,” he said. “You definitely want to segment code on an as-needed basis.”
A repository provides a few different checkpoints, which are particularly helpful if you’re working with multiple developers. “Keep all your code there, and ask developers to send changes directly to it,” Ahlawat suggests.
How does this process work? “As a programmer, you might find and fix a bug, create 10 lines of code, then send it to the repository,” he explained. “Before it gets merged into the code base, your peers can review it and provide feedback. Then it can be merged into the code base.”
Protecting written code in and of itself can be tricky. You can add a clause that stipulates specific code from your project can’t be reused, but it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of developers rely on open source libraries and tools to learn and build solutions—something you should be aware of for both acknowledgments and licensing requirements. You should also let your freelancers know if you expect them to deliver code that does not include open-source components (but remember this can affect the price).
The primary concern when it comes to development is typically not the mechanics of the actual code but the business logic you’re trying to implement. This is where taking time to address the basics—using legal protections, such as patents—plays such as critical role.
6. Trust the people you hire
Trust is central to any working relationship, whether with a freelancer, employee, or other partner. Finding great talent starts with a solid hiring process; careful screening, skill tests, and references can help you identify the best freelancers for your project.
That due diligence can help you feel more confidence about the day-to-day work. In “Hire Fast & Build Things,” Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel observes that trust is one of the most misplaced concerns when it comes to working with people remotely:
“When it comes down to it, an on-site worker can just as easily do bad things as someone working online. Proximity does not guarantee integrity. Hiring online often provides more transparency since you can see feedback from previous clients and more easily ‘test-drive’ your relationship… Keep in mind that freelancers want to get great feedback, testimonials, and references in order to build their reputations and secure more work in the future.”
7. Know your exit strategy
Even the best working relationships come to an end. Thinking through what happens when a project wraps up isn’t Worst Case Scenario, it just means you have a plan in place. Ask yourself:
- How can you make sure you own access to any deliverables?
- What can you do to cut access to proprietary information when it’s no longer needed?
- How will you track which systems and information the freelancer has access to?
Providing information and accesses only on an as-needed basis will help, and providing that access through secure accounts that permit you to cut off access can make the end of a project much more seamless. Plus, asking for the return of confidential information can often make all the difference; note that the default terms for contracts through Upwork require Freelancers to return all client materials at the end of a contract or upon request (Section 8.6 of the User Agreement.)
Check out Upwork’s Hiring Guides to get more information about how to find and hire the right freelancer for your project.
Disclaimer: This article cannot and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Please contact your legal advisor if you have questions.