How Can Photographers Escape Copyright Thieves? Michelangelo Had the Right Idea


In the 16th century, Michelangelo worked on commission. Without his many patrons, there would be no Sistine Chapel ceiling, no Pietà, no David.

Maybe it is time for photographers to return to the Renaissance model for financing their efforts. Because for many creative professionals, the current way of doing business seems doomed.

No Respect for Ownership

In his biography, The Age of Turbulence, Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Board chairman, wrote:

My experience leads me to consider state-enforced property rights as the key growth-enhancing institution. If those rights were not enforced, open trade and the huge benefits of competition and comparative advantage would be seriously and dramatically impeded. People generally do not exert the effort to accumulate the capital necessary for economic growth unless they can own it.

He went on to add:

The presumption of individual property ownership and the legality of its transfer must be deeply embedded in the culture of a society for free market economies to function effectively. In the West, the moral validity of property rights is accepted, or at least acquiesced in, by virtually the whole of the population.

I question whether the concept of individual property ownership is “deeply embedded in the culture” anymore — at least as regards creative endeavors.

Indeed, a large, vocal segment of the population seems to believe that certain property should be free to all, and that the creators have no rights once the property is shown to anyone. Using the creative works of others without permission or compensation is becoming the morally accepted standard.

Curse of the Free Internet Society

Prevailing “wisdom” — and certainly prevailing behavior — says that in the Internet age, everything should be free. This not only includes anything that an individual publishes online himself, but if it is possible for someone else to takes an individual’s creative work and post it on the Internet, this should be permissible also — even without the creator’s permission, knowledge or any compensation.

As photographers, our business is both blessed and cursed by the fact the finished product we create can be easily delivered on the Internet.

If you purchase a pair of jeans online, you can view them and pay for them, but you don’t have anything you can use until the product is physically delivered. With photography, if you show the customer what you are offering for sale, the customer immediately has something he can use — whether he chooses to pay for it or not.

Sure, if the version of the image you show the customer is a very small file, and the customer needs access to something larger, then the customer may be forced to do business with you. But for customers whose planned use is on the Internet, it won’t be long before most of those paid uses disappear.

We should also bear in mind that there are fewer and fewer print uses available, while the number of online uses continues to grow.

And of course, once your photograph appears in high resolution, either online or in print, there are plenty of sites that reuse them without permission. Many site operators display images they have scanned from print publications.

Fine art photographers whose customers want a print they can hang on their wall may be able to get by with displaying their work on the Internet, because their customers will need access to a large file to make a good print. But they may not be able to guarantee that they are offering a limited edition, as the Internet version may be appropriated by lots of other people.

What Microstock Proves

Some will point to microstock as proving that, despite general moral attitudes, many people are still willing to pay for the photos they use.

That may be true, but I believe an important factor driving such purchases is the customer’s willingness to pay small amounts for convenience and service. If someone saves them time by making it easier and quicker for them to find the right image, they will pay for that service.

But I doubt most customers stop to think that a portion of the fee they are paying should be going to the creator for his or her abilities and the effort expended in the creation. I doubt they care.

Frankly, I think many people, and particularly those who grew up with the Internet, believe that all creative work should be immediately placed in the public domain for the benefit of all.

What’s a Photographer to Do?

Given the changes in society’s mores, what kind of jobs will there be for professional photographers in the future?

I really think that those interested in taking pictures as a career may need to focus entirely on commissioned work.

Some companies will need someone who is always on call to produce certain images the organization needs. Such staff jobs, though limited in number, will continue to be available.

For the self-employed photographer, there will be weddings, family or business portraits, event coverage, contractors who need progress photographs of new buildings, fashion, and so forth. There will also be some news coverage — although in the future a lot of that is likely to be supplied by amateurs.

The idea of taking pictures on speculation and showing them to potential customers, or trying to resell second rights to images created on a commissioned job, is becoming a thing of the past. Producing pictures in expectation that the costs of production will be covered by many users, each paying a small share of the cost, is becoming an unworkable model.

So, photographers, I suggest you focus on work where your price for the project is agreed upon up front, and an advance paid.

When your work is delivered, the customer will receive all rights to do whatever he wants with it — except control its use. No one apparently has that right anymore.


7 Responses to “How Can Photographers Escape Copyright Thieves? Michelangelo Had the Right Idea”

  1. The problem is only made worse by idiot lawyers like this http://bit.ly/dmLwJd who believe it's their right to steal our work with no compensation.

  2. We have a new service to help find copyright violations and recover settlement fees for unauthorized use of your work. http://www.imagerights.com Image theft is illegal.

  3. How I wish you were wrong in your prognostications.

  4. Here's the online link to an article in praise of copying from this morning's Toronto Sun newspaper.
    http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2010/10/12/15666781.html

    And here's a link to get yourself a free copy of the book mentioned in the article:
    http://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/boon/
    (Don't feel guilty about taking a copy because this author is voluntarily distributing it for free under a creative commons license).

  5. the sooner a photographer figures this out the better off they are.

  6. So, are we just supposed to drop the old model (photographer keeps the copyright and issues licenses) because the rest of the world lost respect for our constitutional rights? I understand the point, that it's a losing battle, but does that mean we should just throw in the towel? Shooting on spec is a gamble, sure. Shooting work that's paid for is obviously the better business model. But if you have the potential to make more money off a commissioned image, for whatever reason (it has resale potential in some form or fashion), why give up that right? Sure people can steal images if they want to, but it won't help to just give into that, and relinquish our own right to at least try to make money off our property.

  7. Michelangelo did not make a penny from licensing because the paintings weren't used for commercial purposes but under religious and charitable motivations. That MO still applies nowadays.

    I don't agree with just letting go and throwing in the towel on the basis of beliefs.
    If anything, this is a call to adapt and innovate smartly and wisely.
    If anything, it should be corporations who have to quiet down and strive to innovate further rather than pursue people and other companies for infringement.
    It has to go both ways.

    With due respect, Mr Pickerell, if it was that bad, why stay in the stock business, let alone maintain a photo licensing site?

    Regarding the post, while I respect your opinion, it would have been even more productive to actually cite examples and real world statistics to back up your claims instead of relying on mere beliefs.

Leave a Reply