10 Ways to Fight for Your Digital Rights as a Photographer

Fighting for your digital rights would seem to be an uphill battle these days. Let’s face it; the rights of photographers have been badly battered.

First came Google, when it won the case to publish images in its search results without paying anything. Then came National Geographic and others, republishing entire issues on CD-ROM without paying additional fees. Even today, the magazine industry poor-mouths its way to paying pennies for images on Web sites that now have bigger circulations than the corresponding print editions.

And yet, many in the photo industry still view the Web as their savior. The question is, How so?

An image posted on the home page of a site that receives one million hits per week is not licensed at the same price as an image on the cover of a weekly magazine that has one million readers. Why is that?

What makes publishers believe that images online are worth less than those in print? What makes photographers and photo agencies agree?

Most of the discourse is about how a magazine’s online edition generates far less revenue than its print edition. Since when has that been the concern of photographers and agencies? Is this now one of our responsibilities — to guarantee revenue on top of licensing images?

It shouldn’t be.

Here are 10 ways we — all of us in the industry — can fight back.

1. Stop treating “digital rights” as an add-on to a license. Maybe we should make “print rights” as an additional right. We should treat Web usage as a full-blown license of its own.

2. Stop licensing images online as “one week on home page” or “one day inside, 1/4 page.” A Web site is not a magazine; it doesn’t work that way. We should also stop making a distinction between commercial and editorial usage. Most editorial sites have a hundred times more traffic than corporate sites. We should treat the Web as an entity. It has measurable traffic — much more so than a magazine. Charge a license based on traffic; that is how sites charge advertisers, isn’t it?

3. Don’t buy into the poverty talk. Many editorial sites today have a budget bigger than their print siblings. As publications close their print editions for online only, they shift their budgets. Some with the biggest traffic charge $400,000 for a one-day banner ad.

4. Don’t buy the “it’s good publicity” argument. How many images have you ever licensed because one of your images appeared online? Would you offer your images for pennies to a print magazine because it’s “good publicity”?

5. Stop believing that because the image is of a smaller size and only 72 dpi, it has less value. That is like saying that if an image is used in B/W, although it was shot in color, it has less value. Where does that come from? The value of an image has nothing to do with the numbers of pixels it has — nothing. Does a Cartier-Bresson or Leibovitz image lose value with fewer pixels?

6. Stop waiting for others to act. Stop expecting someone else to show you the way. Google is taking your rights away, yet you turn a blind eye. Call that association to which you pay a hefty membership fee, and tell them to act. Tell your agency to stop giving away your rights and your images. And if they don’t, leave them. This is your problem, now. Not someone else’s in the future. It’s not going to go away; it’s only going to get worse.

7. Focus less on what to shoot next — and more on licensing what you already have. Unless we start dealing with the issues at hand, those magical pictures you plan to shoot in the future will only generate a fraction of what your existing images can.

8. Stop being beggars. Your images are needed. In fact, they are the core value of many publications and Web sites. These publishers are not doing you a favor by using your work; you are bringing them the value they need in order to run their business. What you do is unique. Trust me, if they could do it themselves and shut you out, they would. But they can’t.

9. Stop being technophobes. It’s not cute anymore. All the information is at your fingertips. Read, learn. Saying you don’t understand is no excuse anymore. You shoot digital, don’t you? So stop the crap about how you do not understand RSS feeds or HTML, or anything Web-related. No one buys it — and if they do, it’s only so they can squeeze more out of you.

10. Stop being afraid. Stop being afraid of losing clients, afraid of tomorrow, afraid of big corporations, afraid of your own decisions. The images you shoot or that you license have the value you give them. Bargain if necessary, until you have no breath left. And leave the table if you have to.

Your images are like your children. Don’t let them be mistreated.

19 Responses to “10 Ways to Fight for Your Digital Rights as a Photographer”

  1. Though I am not a photographer but on the other side of the deal I'd like to chime in with some comments.

    I have been telling customers since forever that they need to care about licencing, most of them have never heard of that and next are utterly shocked at what prices often are imagined by the fotographer. The one thing I hate about all of these arguments is simple [and yes I am simplifying]: Why is it always you want to participate on the success of something and say this is only based on what you produced but never on the failures (because that is always the publishers fault)?

    Licencing rights are a basis for negotiation and not a right per se as in I have to make you rich and famous but "you have something I want and in exchange I could have something you want let's talk".

    I have had enough of people licencing content in any kind applying deals from the last millenium (jup) which f.e. where based on the fact that back then even a modest publication and distribution was unheard of, even unthinkable. Worldwide even more so.

    The internet is by definition world wide and not limited in time. As you correctly said, this needs to be treated differently because it is different. At the same time you cannot expect the same compensation build on old measurements in a different universe. Note that I am not saying that you should receive less or anything, but I say it needs to be treated differently.

    Concentrate on undertanding this new system called the internet (which btw is oh so old now it is not cute since 5 years ago) and start work like a professional. Get to know how to make yourself a name in this system and learn to understand to think business.

    If you in this for business, start treating it as such (as you said in Nr. 9). Start using stock photo sites for your lesser value photos which are still good enough to be stock photo material and earn money through this. Use an alias if you must. Understand how image distribution happens like sites of Stumbleupon and co because people do not know about licencing and do not care. Never have. You will not change that. You can play by your rules or understand how the other side tick and make this your advantage (and thus money out of this).

    You mentioned famous fotographers but let's face it, that is an unfair comparison. Because most fotos used are not from famous fotographers and not in there because one wants art but just some image. Something non text. In such an enviroment (which also exists in print) you don't book somebody famous but somebody to do the job.

    Because most photographers are still set in stone in thinking "this is my art and I want to be treated as an artist". Which is fine. But there is a reason why most artists do not earn money and some do.

  2. This is fantastic information. Are you guys working with UsePLUS as well? We've incorporated their terminology into our workflow and it's good to have a standard base of terminology to work with (http://ns.useplus.org)

  3. Nicole,
    we can see that you are not a photographer, nor a creator that has ever had the experience of licensing anything. I do not know where to begin:
    - "Licencing rights are a basis for negotiation and not a right per se". Do you negotiate when you rent a car or buy a plane ticket ? Because it is very similar. You actually rent an image for a period of time and space.
    - " At the same time you cannot expect the same compensation build on old measurements in a different universe." You are right. Since it is world rights and unlimited , it must be more..Much more.
    - ".Start using stock photo sites for your lesser value photos which are still good enough to be stock photo material and earn money through this". You mean sell crap for less ? mmm. not my way of doing business. I prefer continuing selling the best. I respect my customers.
    - " Understand how image distribution happens like sites of Stumbleupon and co because people do not know about licencing and do not care. Never have. You will not change that." Watch me.
    - "Because most fotos used are not from famous fotographers and not in there because one wants art but just some image. Something non text". Is that your idea of a photograph, something "non text" ? Ouch. Maybe we are not talking about the same thing. Furthermore, the notoriety of a photographer does not make the value of an image. The image does.
    - "You mentioned famous fotographers but let's face it, that is an unfair comparison." And how do you think they become famous ? They first start to be be unknown and according to you, should be treated as such.
    I will try to assume that my understanding of your comments is due to your mismanagement of the english language, because they are borderline insulting to those of us who live from this business. You seem to be part of those that dream of a free internet with free content, but do not contribute yourself.
    As far as PLUS, Gene, it was dead before it was launched. One of these "standards" created by people that will never use it. It is a poor cover for a private image registry.

  4. What a great post Paul, I am a big fan of your blog. I think fear is such a big factor with a lot of creative people. Photographers really are afraid to just say no, you can't have that for free, no you can't get that much usage for such a paltry fee. They're afraid of not working, of not being liked, of being put on some kind of blacklist. As a travel photographer and writer I, like many of us, go through this all the time. And you know what? It just got real easy when I ignored the tyre kickers and concentrated on cultivating relationships with those wonderful editors and publications that really respect what creators do.

    It seems to me that the ones who are so keen on eroding the rights of creatives are those who have never created a damn thing in their lives! They just like to get rich off the creative efforts of others. We may not all have the bluntness of a Harlan Ellison but we can certainly be as strong-willed.

  5. Great article, I've been amazed at how many people have the opinion that if it's online it's not worth as much, or even the attitude that if it is online it belongs to everyone.

  6. And when copied (aka stolen) nobody knows who's it was in the first place … an orphan.
    What happened with the Orphan works Bill in the US?
    Giving away basic rights by all means, I would say!

    "as sayd in this example letter last year .....

    I'm writing to urge you to oppose the U.S. Orphan Works Bills, H.R. 5889 and S. 2913, introduced into the House and Senate on April 24, 2008. These bills would amend the U.S. Copyright Law by adding “§ 514. Limitation on remedies in cases involving orphan works.” (Chapter 5 of Title 17, United States Code.)

    This new law establishes yet another new defense to copyright infringement—orphan works. This new limitation on remedies will be imposed on any copyrighted work regardless of the national origin of the author of the work concerned.

    What is an “orphan work”? It is any copyrighted work whose author cannot be found after a “reasonably diligent search”—conducted by the infringer. The infringer decides when he has met this imprecise test.

    The infringer would be free to ignore the rights of the author and use the work for any purpose, including commercial usage. The infringed work could be used in any motion picture—including X-rated—any commercial advertisement, including political advertising, tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical advertising.

    The new law also allows the original work to be manipulated beyond recognition in “mashups”, “remixes” or other digital manipulations and allows the infringer to claim copyright in the derivative work without the consent of the owner of the infringed work.

  7. This is the first part of a longer letter

  8. Am I within my rights to tweet this post?

  9. Tweet away, Micah! 🙂

    This post has actually set some kind of record for us -- with 37 re-tweets at last count.

  10. Please excuse my ignorance here. I am an IT guy by trade, and an aspiring amateur photographer that would like more. I understand the internet quite well, but I am a little confused about a couple of points you made. It is these:

    "First came Google, when it won the case to publish images in its search results without paying anything. Then came National Geographic and others, republishing entire issues on CD-ROM without paying additional fees."

    So, you are saying that Google showing thumbnails in search results is bad? That is what it looks like to me. Those search results are what has allowed me to earn a little bit of money so far. As far as I am concerned, as a photographer, I get as much, if not more back from google as I "give" them, considering they are TINY thumbnails that link back to my actual content. One of my hats is that of Search Engine Optimizer... and I really do not get your argument. It seems that Google does GOOD, getting eyes on your work, that otherwise would not have seen it. If this is what you are talking about, I am about 90% sure that you could hide your work from Google, if you used the robots.txt or other methods that block bots from indexing your site.

    The other one, there, is the fact that National Geographic sells the magazines on CD. If I am negotiating selling a picture to a magazine, I have been under the assumption that they use it for that issue of the magazine. If a writer's work is reproduced on their website, or on a CD are they compensated for each iteration? It seems to me, that if you license a picture to be used in an article, doesn't the person that licensed it decide WHERE to publish the article, whether it is print, Web, or CD/electronic?

    Please realize, I am not trying to be adversarial, I am really trying to understand all of this. I was just offered to have a picture added to a cookbook, and I will be getting some paperwork to sign, and I want to help get understanding what I should be doing with my photos, and how I should be protecting them. Thank you for the article, and thank you for any help.

  11. Kevin,
    Each usage of image requires a license agreement for that use. and a fee.
    Google Image displays images without authorization or paying a fee. Whether it is helpful to you career or not, is irrelevant. You can decide not to charge them a fee. But it is a mood point. They got sued and won.
    National Geographic, or others, can use your images on any medium they so which too, as long as, again, a license agreement for that fee. What they cannot or should not do is republish your image in another medium as initially agreed upon without paying an extra fee. At least in theory.
    Again, it is your decision, and your right, as the copyright owner not to charge a fee. But the license agreement should still exist.
    Hope that helps and no, it was not taken adversely.It is important to discuss and educate. I wish more people would.

  12. Paul, your response to Nicole is wonderful and Nicole, you bring up many points that other people feel when it comes to buying rights. The only thing I thought about after reading the post was that I risk every time I click the shutter. Is the photo good enough? Will it sell as stock? Will anyone take notice? If you are talking with me about buying my photo, a photo that you found and are willing to pay a price because it meets your needs, then my risk was worthwhile. I have succeeded at my job. If you use the photo in such a way that it does not work for your needs, that is your risk, not mine. You risked nothing in me making the photo. That was my risk of doing business.

  13. Great article- raises important questions and has some concrete suggestions. Photographers labour, artists labour, important ways to share information and stories - a wage, an income, a recognition of this contribution is a human right not a means of production for others profits.

  14. Paul,

    I'm a newcomer to this business of photography and have been frustrated by the whole process of licensing images but especially for use on the web. I've had potential "stock clients" be shocked that I'm not willing to simply "give them permission" to use images on their websites and also found my pictures being used in a number of places without any requests at all - essentially stolen.

    So I've thought that there's something that's not working with web licensing and that there has to be a technology out there to make it work well for all parties. From both sides of the equation, it makes no sense to me to try to "sell" web usage based on image size and display duration - let alone track that the licensee is only using an image at a 1/4 screen size and only for 3 months when it seems that anything that hits the web becomes essentially permanent! Seems that it would be a win-win for both photographer and licensee to get away from the "fixed fee, pay in advance, size and duration model."

    So, is anyone anywhere close to offering something like pay-per-click or web traffic tracking for images? This seems like a no brainer, "natural" way to license images on the web but I don't have any idea of how to "drive that revolution" on my own and would certainly support any company or organization that was working on it.

    Thanks for bringing up the new ideas!

  15. One of the problems I have found with this is that since the digital camera explosion, everyone thinks they are a professional photographer. Unfortunately, there are many who call themselves professionals that choose to sell an image or services for much less, thus diminishing the value of our work.

    I have seen many people use google to find images for their websites and businesses without getting the proper permission from the rightful owner. Sometimes the owner's name/copyright date is simply cropped off from the original image (if it is along the edgew of the photo) or the creator didn't put it on to begin with.

    With all of this in mind, I have decided to put either my name or my website's name clearly across each photo from now on. It's not the most eye-friendly way to present my work but I think it helps prevent thieves.

  16. Online usage seems so alluringly monetizable: Everything is quantified, everything is logged, everything is automated.

    The fantasy: A content server downloads 21K bytes to a browser; the user clicks the ad banner; the ad server registers the click and credits X cents to the content provider's account.

    Your 7K photo accounted for 1/3 of that 21K bytestream; shouldn't you be entitled to 1/3 of the net revenue?

    The reality: It's still people doing the clicking. Did the user click the ad BECAUSE of your image, or IN SPITE of it?

    It would be fascinating to know, and maybe somewhere in the depths of Google Labs there's a tracker showing that pages with pictures of kitties get 0.7% more clickthrough than pages with pictures of doggies.

    But in the real world of specific images, we CAN'T know, so we're faced with trying to negotiate for a slice of revenue without being able to know how much (if any) we contributed to that revenue.

  17. Great post.

    What aleways amazes me is the number of pro photographers (loosest sense in some cases) who refuse to have anything to do with licencing. "Nah it's too much hassle" one said to me, "I just like to charge one fee and that's it".

    These guys and girls, and there seem to be more of them around now than a few years back, haven't got the first clue about how to leverage their copyright for profit. That copyright was hard fought for. It['s there to be used. Pricing on file size or the time it took to shoot the job is totally nuts! No wonder they have to work all week and shoot weddings at the weekend!

    Employees work based on time. Professional creatives don't. Why?



  18. When you have a lot of hobbyists and amateurs who think they are professionals, this is what happens. How can you call yourself a professional photographer if you don't know what licensing means? That's like an entrepreneur who doesn't know what marketing means. I can't tell you how many jobs I've turned down recently because of ridiculously lousy offers and the never ending "the exposure is good for your work" If I can tell my landlord, phone company and GE "the exposure is good for my work", they can have all the rights to my work.

    Most "professional" photographers these days have side or full time jobs to support their photography so having their work published IS their reward rather than making money with their photography. The more we give away our work, the less value our work becomes.

    Camera makers are not dropping their prizes because there are a lot of cameras on the market, are they? If all of us stand up for our work, people will pay for it. If not, we might as well become hobbyists and find another job.

  19. "If all of us stand up for our work, people will pay for it," says Kwaku Kufuor.

    But the real problem is oversupply. There simply are too many people able to produce photos good enough to meet the (lax) standards needed for many kinds of commercial use.

    So it's clear that, for the good of the profession, some professional photographers must euthanize themselves in order to preserve the livelihood of the rest.

    Any volunteers? Welcome to the "lifeboat dilemma"...

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