What You Really Lose by Giving Away Your Copyright


Photographers make a lot of excuses for surrendering their copyrights to the publications that hire them for assignments. I often hear this tired refrain: “What are the photos worth, anyway?”

Well, let’s take one example. Let’s say you are a photographer and a magazine called Washington Life hires you to take pictures at a party. You readily hand over the rights to your images because, you rationalize, “They’re just party pics. Who would want them?”

Party Pics, Anyone?

I’ll tell you who wants them. The people in the pictures want them. Which is why Washington Life sells them on SmugMug.

At a price of about $20 for an 8 x 10 print, the magazine recoups the cost of hiring you by selling about 10 prints. That makes the use of your photos in the magazine essentially free. And since Washington Life owns the copyright to your photos as per its contract with you, you are not entitled to an additional dime.

“But it’s just a few prints,” you say. “Who cares? What does it matter?”

For one thing, it’s work you created; you should be entitled to income from it. For another thing, it’s just plain wrong.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage you to sell your own party prints. It’s to illustrate that your images have value beyond the immediate assignment.

I know for a fact that during at least one past political scandal, this same magazine owned a portrait that a photographer had shot for them, and they re-licensed that image for a considerable sum of money. I can only assume this is happening with other images as well.

If you’ve given them your copyright, why shouldn’t they take advantage of it (and you)?

Turning Your Photos into Their Profit Center

Consider the case of Niche Media.

Based in Nevada, Niche Media publishes city-specific luxury lifestyle magazines, including Ocean Drive, Capitol File, Gotham, Hamptons, and Los Angeles Confidential, which together “capture a dream, coast-to-coast demographic” for its advertisers.

Niche Media has a nice side business going, too. They sell/relicense your images to Wire Image without paying you for those resales.

How many sales do you think it takes before your assignment becomes a profit center for Niche Media?

One? Two, maybe?

When people take your copyright, or require you to transfer all rights in your images to them, they’re almost always doing it because those images have value. Just because you can’t imagine what an image’s resale value is, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any.

Think twice before selling yourself short.


7 Responses to “What You Really Lose by Giving Away Your Copyright”

  1. Wow! That was a wake up call. Thank you for the alarm. I needed it.

  2. While I generally agree, there are exceptions. If I had not relinquished copyright to the German syndicate who sent me to shoot the Athens Olympics, I would have watched one of my best friends get a gold medal placed around her neck from my couch instead of being a few feet away from her. So it varies according to the situation.

  3. Nice wake up call. How does one stop this from happening?

  4. I think it is entirely unpractical to have to pay small copyright fees over and over again. If you think, your one time fee was to small, demand a bigger one next time!

    You did one job, you get paid once. Dont demand to get paid many times, demand to get paid better.

  5. Good post, but don't forget that some photography might fall into the category of 'Work for Hire'. This is most often the case for people employed as full-time staff, but in certain cases may apply to a photographer hired on contract.
    Any consideration as to whether or not you are releasing your copyright should be written into the contract. Do NOT just assume that you retain the copyright when the contract does not grant the company the ownership, they may have grounds to assume that they own the copyright and leads to issues later. If you want to be sure to keep your copyright of images you shoot, always have it written into the contract that you explicitly retain ownership of the work, or that it is NOT a 'work for hire'. This has been a cornerstone point on a lot of legal cases regarding software IP over the years.

    To find out more about 'work for hire' check the wiki page:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_for_hire

  6. Those in the acting profession receive 'repeat fees' whenever their film or TV programme is re-broadcast as do composers, musicians etc. A truly professional photographer is an 'Artist' (otherwise we'd all be capable) and should be afforded similar considerations.

    However, I agree with Paul - there are exceptions for example - as a Hotel General Manager I recently commissioned two pieces of work - the first being to produce a set of four prints of London landscape/architecture to hang on the hotel bedroom walls and the second, to produce a portfolio of some 50 images of various aspects within the hotel (bedrooms, bathrooms, food, bar, restaurant etc) to use in various brochures, promotional material, flyers, hotel website etc.

    We agreed that the copyright of the London landscapes would remain with the photographer and the copyright for the hotel interior images was ours because they were only for the hotel's use, and relevant only to our particular hotel.

  7. Great posting.

    I hear of way too many people giving away the copyright for nothing more than a credit line.

    What's worse is the attitude of the media companies who write this into the contracts. It's not that they don't pay well, it's that they strip your chance of securing any residual income from those photos.

    How can you have the right to sell if you no longer hold copyright?

    While working at The Aspen Times in Colorado, by virtue of a contract, the photographers owned copyright. The publisher believed that due to the expense of living in town, we needed extra income so they gave us the copyright to re-sell the images.

    While I was there, Aspen Peak (a part of Niche Media) formed and I had the opportunity to discuss the new magazine with the publisher. I asked about photo assignments and the pay was poor, plus they required to have all the photos to sell them.

    I never took an assignment from them.

    I wrote about this a year and a half ago: http://pabloconradphotography.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/protect-your-copyright-its-the-only-thing-of-real-value/

    If they want your copyright, tell them no. Unfortunately, someone always says yes.

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