Photography and copyright

Today is blog about copyright day – November 19, 2010 – according to the Copyright Alliance – a fine group dedicated to educating and advocating for artists on copyright issues.  Since I am a photographer, I thought I would talk about a few points that concern photographers.  Many of my clients and prospective clients do not understand how copyright works.  By default, a photographer always owns the copyright to anything he or she creates.  The only way a photographer would not own the copyright to a photo they create would be one of the following three instances:  1) if a client negotiates a price to own full or partial rights to a photo, 2) if the photographer is an employee of a company that has hired them to take photos or 3) if a company has hired a photographer in a “work for hire” situation, which would most likely include a contract outlining the copyright ownership.

The cost to own “complete rights” or a “buyout” to a photo or any work of art should be very expensive as this prevents the artist from what could be very large potential future earnings from their work.  When you hire a photographer you are paying them for the rights they grant you to use the photograph.  The photographer should spell that agreement out fairly clearly.  If they don’t, the one thing a client can assume is that they haven’t purchased the rights to give the photos to anyone else – only the client who hired the photographer can use the photos.  Unless a photographer has sold the specific rights to do so, a client is not allowed to give the photos to other people, companies, magazines, publishers, contractors, sub-contractors – other parties of any kind.  If other parties are interested in the photos, they must negotiate that with the photographer.  Copyright is how an artist claims ownership for their work and therefore how an artist earns a living.

So if copyright is about earning a living how do photographers price their work?  All photographers and their clients or their potential clients need to understand how the pricing or licensing of photography works – it works just like the rest of the business world – the price is dictated by the demand or the size of the audience.  Some people may be aghast to learn that an artist may charge a different price to different companies.  This is not simply because the artist thinks a large company should pay more  – it’s because an image purchased by a large company will very likely be seen by a much larger audience, perhaps even around the world compared to a small regional company that just wants an image to display on the wall in their office.

When working on an estimate, photographers should always ask clients the following sorts of questions and clients should expect these questions:  How will you be using the images?  Web only?  But the web can be seen around the world . . .  Will the images be used in print advertising, broadcast/television advertising, brochures, billboards, publicity – newspaper, magazines, books, (what’s the circulation of the magazine?), in house display, posters, packaging, CD-Rom, annual reports, point of purchase, free standing inserts?  Do they have a world market or a small regional market?  . . . and so on.  Of course there are many other factors that affect price too – the amount of time needed to complete the project, other people or talent that need to be hired to complete the photography, special equipment or expertise needed, props, travel costs, etc.  Clients may decide later they want to use a photo more than they originally thought . . .

The pricing of photography is always based on HOW and WHERE the images are going to be used – how often, large viewing audience vs. small viewing audience – these things dictate price.  It would not be wise for a photographer to give away work to a large corporate client who might be sending their images around the world.

Of course there’s a lot more written out there about copyright and licensing – I’ve just touched on the most basic principles.  It’s up to artists and photographers to educate their clients about these issues otherwise they are selling themselves short and therefore hurting the industry that allows them to make a living.


About andrea rugg

Professional photographer specializing in location, architecture, product, interiors and gardens. Other interests: bicycling, soccer, gardening, golf, music, travel and walking Boris the dog.
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3 Responses to Photography and copyright

  1. Patrick Ross says:


    Thanks for writing this post! Photographers, of course, are in a real tough spot, because (1) their images are so easily copied, (2) identification of the photographer often isn’t attached, and (3) the importance of licensing and terms is foreign to people who now wish to make use of others’ photos but had little need to do so before the Internet became pervasive and photos became so easy to obtain in high quality without a license.

    You’re right that there are many resources out there. We have some on our web site, and have interviewed a number of passionate creators in short videos (found on our Creators Across America site and on our YouTube channel, “copyrightalliance”), and of course groups like ASMP and PPA have great resources on their sites.

    The bottom line is that while many people aren’t informed on the importance of rights to photographers, anyone who wishes to learn it doesn’t have to go far.

    Thanks again for this heartfelt post.

    Oh, and as to your previous post, I know the feeling of having to sell a motorcycle. I sold my Honda Shadow ACE (completely chromed out) 3 years ago, but boy did she and I have some fun. I still have my helmet and all of my riding gear because I fully believe I’ll be back in bike ownership again someday.

  2. flyinggma says:

    Thanks for the good information. Jeanne

    • andrea rugg says:

      Thanks, hope this basic information helps a few people understand this issue. It’s still a good idea to place the metadata copyright information (Photoshop>File>File Info) on your digital photos and register them with the US Copyright Office!

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