Why Selling “All Rights” Is Wrong for Your Photography Business

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.

19 Responses to “Why Selling “All Rights” Is Wrong for Your Photography Business”

  1. Nice post John. The value of retaining your rights outweighs being a sellout.

  2. $60K to shoot corporate headshots?!?!?!

    You were an idiot to turn down that job. As photographers its important to value our work but to also not overvalue it.

    Reselling and upselling those photographs to the lawyers and their firms is a ton of work too, and not something that just anybody can do. Presumably this magazine is in a position to do that and they also have to meet their overhead.

    I think each job offer has to be looked at in this context and if the money is good enough, take it. Everyone has their price.

  3. New comers (photographer) will never understand this. They just want their images to be publish and they not really put time to study RIGHT and never understand the risk.

  4. I wonder how many photographers are financially sound enough to turn down $60,000.

    If they asked for $500.00 per portrait and rights for use in the mag only, would it have been worth doing? If so, would you have been OK with doubling the fee for unlimited use?

  5. To those who are wondering why John turned down the 60-portrait assignment, read this part of his post:

    "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."

    That's revenue that wouldn't be coming John's way. Not even a cut of it.

    Besides, the mag was offering him a "take it or leave it" deal. And John chose to leave it.

  6. I love how commenters can be so cavalier with their words. Your opinions are all valid but come on, using the word "idiot" is over the top.

    Having been a news photographer working for someone in a work for hire capacity for 2 decades, I can tell you that once you're on your own, if you don't think about the value of your work in a different way, you're going to cheat yourself of any type of retirement.

    Most wannabe's are thinking how hard is it to do 60 portraits? Not hard if all you want to give them is something quick and dirty like a mugshot. There are intangibles like travel, time to setup, scheduling, gas. Remember, it's not like all the attorneys are coming to John and he's setting up in one location ala Photo Booth in a mall.

  7. The magazine too is a business that has to survive. Presumably their model is based on upselling these lawyers a publication that will stroke their egos. Anyway, the magazine is in a position to do that upselling while the photographer is not, most likely. It's not unreasonable that they should profit from their efforts.

    Every job, not just in photography, is a negotiation of rights, usage, pay, skills and work. My point is that $60k seems like a tremendous amount of money for a fairly standard job. Getting too hung up on moral issues clouds economically sound thinking.

  8. The post, while tellinng an interesting story does not answer the question posed. Sure John turned down a job worth 60k because he didn't like the terms but where is the arguement for why it's wrong for business? The post seems like pointless grandstanding to me and in no way educational.

    There are many solid reasons for taking the assigning of rights seriously just as there are also many occasions when selling all rights makes good business sence, ie when you sell all rights for a fair return on what you could possibly expect to earn from those images over their useful lifespan. If 60k wasn't that number and John was comfortable walking away from the job as the client wouldn't play ball then fair enough. Personally I would have taken more than just the figure into account, is a confirmed 60k this year worth the trade over the possibility of 60k + 20k? spread out over several years in the future? What is the value of a steady and confirmed stream of shoots for a year ?(or whatever time period). How will this effect my availabiltty for other shoots and how will that effect my yearly income? I think it's better to argue for giving due to consideration to the real value of a job than it is to just coff up a black and white; this is right, that is wrong approach as presented here.

  9. I'd have to agree...60K sounds like a heck of a lot of money, but when you start thinking about the time it takes to take good photos of 60 different people, then you will inevitably need to probably edit/re-touch them, and depending on how much time you have to get these done, you may even need other people to help you with this. So when you factor all this in with equipment, weeks of time, traveling etc., 60K isn't sounding like so much is it? Especially, when you ALSO end up selling all the rights and receiving virtually no credit for your work.

    I applaud you, John and I think that it's great that you took a stand on this. You believe in your work and you won't make any sacrifices for that. There's something to be said for that these days.

  10. First of all, there is no guarantee that all 60 lawyers would have their portrait done. I have no trouble believing that is an optimistic number based of presales. With a loss of 10%, the real number is probably closer to 55 portraits. Take the money, even at the reduced amount. If your ego has to be stroked, insist on a watermark on all images sold. Seriously, how big is the Washington Area? How far are you from the office or your home? How much time would be spent on the project per portrait, including a quick fix on Photo Shop? The expenses can not be that much; at least within reach to make the portrait sessions profitable. How much profit do you want? How much profit do you need? The real issue seems to be that you begrudge the magazine making a profit on your work. Get over it, middle men are the way of the world. Sit back and enjoy the fact that they need you to make money.

  11. @Tim-The DC area is bigger AND smaller than one might think. I live in the suburbs near DC, myself.

    I'm also guessing, Tim, that you are not a photographer. In my experience (granted, I'm a newbie, self-taught, and doing this part-time,) there is very rarely any such thing as a "quick fix on Photoshop." Maybe for the super-high-end pros like John, but for me, a "quick fix on Photoshop" can take up to 10 minutes. (That's more time than it sounds like, if you are working on hundreds of photos!)

    Again, I'll say that I'm a newbie and am self-taught, so am learning as I go. That said, though I am conflicted a bit, I have to side with John and Arlo. I am also a freelance writer, and I WILL NOT sell all rights as a writer. It is "just not done." If John were to retain some or most or all of his rights, he would be setting himself up to collect future revenue from this client. Supposing he'd kept his rights? Then, the client would (presumably) have to go back to him to buy prints. If he's selling the clients those subsequent prints at, say, $300/each, well that's potentially what? Another 5 or 6 grand in John's pocket?

    Now, I could CERTAINLY use $60,000. That would be a wonderful chunk of money for what sounds like a very straightforward (technically, anyway) series of shoots; however, even as a newbie, I don't believe in closing the door on future potential income.

    Is that future income GUARANTEED if he keeps his rights? No. Nothing is guaranteed; however, the POTENTIAL is there.

    Also, I feel it devalues any art form when people choose to "sell out" like that.

    Nice blog, John. I'm sure I will learn a lot from you. I found you via MediaBistro.com, and I've already subscribed.

    Jen M.
    JenniferLynn Productions, LLC

  12. I'm sorry but this sounds a bit far fetched. 60k for headshots? Are you trying to stake your claim as the best headshot guy in the world? Whats the big deal, they are headshots. If they asked you for some long involved landscape or architect photos to be used and reprinted however they wish, then yes I could see asking for a bigger cut. How much time and effort would this have involved? Did you have to fly across the country? Was editing and touch-ups required? All of this would go into my decision on if I took this job or not. Granted I don't take pictures for a living, but did the job you take instead of this pay as much as the 60k job? Would you have taken less per photo for a bigger cut of what was sold? Did you ask? was it an option?

    It really sounds like bragging that you could walk away from a relatively easy job that paid a nice chunk of change. Please help me understand where you not taking a 60k job is a lesson.


  13. As in so many areas of contemporary American culture and economic endeavor, what we see in these comments is the dichotomy between those who are entirely short-term in their outlook and those who are all-term (short, medium, and long). Some of the financial desperation one can read between the lines of the short-term commenters is the result of a weakened overall marketplace for photographers and photo distributors that has evolved largely because of the willingness of short-termers to settle for quickie sell-outs of the sort John rejected.

  14. Turning down $60,000 for 60 photos is stupid. For some people, that's like 3 years worth of salary! Iv'e lost respect for you as a photographer and as a blogger.

  15. Right now, I'm living off of less money per month than the value of one single picture you were offered to shoot!

  16. Hard to walk away from 60k, but the headache of trying to deal with 60 egos, each one bigger than the next. The coordination it takes to plan all of those headshots out in a timely manner would take a good bit of finagling.
    It also sounds like the magazine would actually make a tidy profit from those headshots reselling them to the different firms.

  17. Re: A Great Deal — or So It Seemed

    As a UK based freelance press photographer with over 20 years experience I totally respect photographers protecting their own rights and values, as this is very important. I can also understand some of the thinking in most of the other readers comments above and I do find I agree with some of them too in this case.

    In John's defence I am sure that every one of these portraits would have been more than just a head shot and would have probably taken him more like a half day if not a full day to do the job with specialist lighting etc, not to mention travel and editing time. So $1000 per portrait is maybe not too far from what John charges anyway - although, to be honest I wish I could charge even half that for a day's rate including expenses!

    Most of you have made some very valid points and I must admit my initial thoughts were you turned down $60,000 to 60 portraits?? Shock Horror! I would be happy to make that in 2-3 years!

    I honestly can't understand a lawyer paying out $3,000 for a photograph, the privilege of having his/her mug on the front of a Magazine, and the use of the photo for their own uses too, seems very steep to me!

    All I can say is that I agree with one of the readers above who says you surely would have been happy charging £500 for the portrait and $500 for the extra rights - I know I am sure I would have been happy taking on this work even knowing that someone else is making money out of my photos - that's life and it happens all the time!

    I think the main point that you have to consider is how busy you are as a photographer, I don't know John, but this could have meant him putting off other regular clients in able to fit these jobs in, something that I am sure would have helped him make come to his decision to turn down the work. I am sure John made the right choice according to his own situation.

    I must say though that I don't think this is the best example of photographers protecting and valuing your own photography and rights.

    I would have personally taken on the work - I might have even flown over especially to do this project myself from the UK, so get any more projects like this, you know where to thrown them!

    Cheers Keith

  18. I also believe that selling all rights is a bad business decision and John acted on principle. His point that photographers would rather give up the rights to photos instead of negotiate is valid. When you have a prospective client, being accommodating is good, but don't give away the store. Being a wimp in negotiations only shows how desperate you are to get the work, and when that happens they will eat your lunch every time. John was dealing with a company bigger than his and they may have thought they were doing him a favor. Sixty grand seems like a small fortune today and is a lot of money to turn down but it's just a number and don't let that wow you. Many of us are judging John's post on how badly we need the money now and the rest of us on how badly are we mortgaging our future by letting someone get over on us. This kind of thing happens every day. We give something up not realizing the true value. How badly did he need the money? Was it worth selling out for? Everybody has their price. Decisions are often made on priorities and his good business sense was in control here.

    Clearly John felt like he was being taken advantage of. He had to do his own investigation instead of the client being up front with him. John did not indicate in his article how much more he would have accepted to take the job. The unwillingness of the prospective client to negotiate would have made many people walk away from the deal. We don't really know what John's cost of doing business is or was at the time. What we might assume is there would have been 60 clients brought to John that he may have never found on his own. There is some value in that. John is a seasoned professional and knows what additional profit was possible from future sales. If I were John, I would have either asked the magazine for some free advertising or taken the contract and hired another capable photographer that does not care about giving up their rights. Let them worry about whether they would be in business in a couple of years. While John is good at explaining to us what is good for our industry he can't convince everyone what is best for them.

    The question you have to ask yourself is, if you sold a client an "all rights" photo for $1200.00 and they turned around and sold it for $20,000.00, how would you feel?

  19. John has a great point and sound advice in regards to maintaining your rights but the example provided weakens the argument since turning down a $60k job for headshots is not something likely to go over well considering the economic conditions. More than half the population in this country makes less than that in one year even if you were to factor in estimated expenses.

    Now to put it in context if the opportunity cost of time from doing other jobs was greater then that would make more sense from a financial perspective but leaving that much money on the table purely out of principle is a difficult argument to make.

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