I recently had a distinctly unpleasant conversation with a client who called me after his subordinate had contracted me for an assignment. The contract included a standard rights package.
The client began the call by referencing the agreement and asked, “We do own all rights to these photos, right?”
Preserving Your Rights — Worth the Hassle?
“No,” I explained. The contract included the standard rights I give when I cover a press conference, which was the assignment in this case.
I also, of course, couldn’t grant the client rights that I didn’t have. For example, I did not plan to obtain model releases from all those attending the event, which meant that the photos could not be used in marketing materials.
So no, I couldn’t convey “all rights” to him.
We did the assignment as planned, successfully deflecting the client’s last-minute rights grab.
Some photographers argue that these kinds of discussions aren’t worth the hassle. Just sell your services for as much as you can up front, they say, and don’t worry about saving rights to monetize later.
This point of view usually comes from photographers who don’t want to deal with negotiations, contracts, accounting and spreadsheets. They just want to take pictures — all the way up until their business closes its doors.
A Great Deal — or So It Seemed
I once had a magazine call me to photograph 60 portraits of individual attorneys in the Washington, D.C. area. The prospective client wanted to pay $1,000 per portrait.
It sounded great at first. Upon reading the contract, however, I learned that the client planned to take all rights, including reprints.
I decided to do a little investigating about the project.
It turns out the portraits were to be included in a “special edition” of the magazine called “Washington’s Best Lawyers” and that each of the featured firms would be asked to advertise in the publication.
The magazine would also sell the attorneys reprints of their profiles, with photos, for $3,000. For an extra charge, the publication would even create a special version of the magazine’s cover showcasing the lawyer or firm.
In other words, the “special edition” of the magazine was thinly disguised advertising, and the reprints were essentially marketing brochures for the paying firms.
Oh, and for an additional fee, the law firms could buy the digital files — presumably to use for whatever other marketing purposes they wished.
I decided that the magazine should pay more, considering all the planned uses of my work. But they wouldn’t budge. So I declined the job.
Would they be able to find a photographer for this assignment? Yes, of course.
But it wouldn’t be me.
The Wisdom of Arlo
Sometime back, I got a chance to shoot the folk singer Arlo Guthrie. He said something that day that has stayed with me:
The art of doing nothin’ is probably one of the most profitable things you can do, because it sets you up to be doing something.
When you are thinking about accepting an assignment where the fees will barely cover your costs, or giving in to an excessive rights grab with the justification that “it’s better than doing nothin’,” that’s a good time to reflect on Guthrie’s advice.
Rather than take a job from a client who undervalues you, why not spend that day seeking out better-playing clientele who don’t casually tell you that they expect “all rights” to your photos?
Clients who respect you, your work and your rights are out there. You just need to go out and find them — and then consistently demonstrate why you deserve the professional respect you have been given.