I’ve made images of probably over a thousand artists and musicians over the nearly two decades I’ve been making images. In fact, I am shooting a performance of a well-known ’80s band on Monday for a client. On these assignments, I maintain my rights to these images, as well as preclude any conditions to my exercising those rights. An article in the New York Times yesterday shed light on why this business practice is a good idea.
The Business of Rock Photography
On more than one occasion, I have been presented with contracts I am supposed to sign in order to gain access to the venue, and these contracts restrict uses or transfer ownership or use to the artist I am assigned to cover. We don’t sign these contracts, not only because it’s our policy, but because it’s the policy of the publications and clients we work for that any such restrictions must be negotiated in advance of our appearance.
More than once, a PR person came after me as I was walking away from signing, saying I didn’t have to sign it, and could still cover the show. Sometimes I was on assignment for Rolling Stone; other times, lesser publications.
Now, one record company is taking all the images they have — some probably employees’ images; others no doubt, from freelancers who they hired and received copyrights/broad re-use rights from — and is licensing these images. The New York Times reports that Sony Music is looking to license out images  of their artists:
Some of Sony’s music executives believe there is a gold mine under the company’s New York headquarters on Madison Avenue…’We’re looking to take advantage of all the assets of the company, not just the audio recordings’…
Cutting Photographers Out of the Loop
The article makes sure to note Sony’s respect for the performers — “To sell photos from the archive, Sony BMG gets the permission of the artists or their estates and gives them a cut of sales…” — but wait? There’s no mention of compensation to the photographers who created the images.
If Sony owns the images, or the rights to re-sell them, then by all means they should do so. I have no bones to pick with that. But I want to caution you that when a company says it needs all rights, or copyright, and that it isn’t going to do much with the images, you should think twice about that. They may not now, but they well could as those assets appreciate — and you’ll be cut out of the loop.
Always do everything in your power to retain your rights to your images when a client comes calling. If you opt to license an extremely broad rights package (i.e. unlimited forever), be sure to limit it to uses by that company only, or if not, be darn sure you are properly compensated to the breadth and extent of that client’s rights package.
The Times article is definitely worth a read, and will give you insight into the many ways your images can find their way into uses you never anticipated.