Part 4: What is Image Licensing?
A discussion of Image Licensing - or the licensing of any intellectual property - begins with an agreement to accept the the Laws of Copyright, first enacted in the United States by Congress in May, 1790. Copyright Law says that upon creation of a work in a fixed form, that work immediately becomes the exclusive property of the author who created it. No one else can claim copyright of the work, and control of its use is a the discretion of the copyright owner. A copyright holder has the option, but not the obligation, to permit the use of one or more of his/her copyrighted works. This permission is often granted through a license agreement that stipulates the specific work being licensed, the exact use(s) being granted, and the duration or term that the license will be in effect, after which time the license expires and ownership of the work remains with the copyright holder/creator.
Under treaty of “The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works”, over 170 countries agree to mutually respect each others’ copyright laws. Copyrighted work can be literary, musical, dramatic, pantomime, choreography, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, motion picture, audiovisual, sound recording, architectural work, mask works fixed in semiconductor chip products, or a computer program.
Copyright gives its owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license that work, and to produce or license derivatives of his or her work. Works are covered whether or not a copyright notice is attached and whether or not the work is registered. Copyright ownership occurs automatically at the moment of creation, and no one but the author can claim copyright to the work, unless the author grants rights to others in a written agreement. This is a very important aspect to know about photography. If a photographer photographs a project for you and doesn’t include in the contract a written licensing agreement, you have nothing. Per the US Copyright Laws, unless some form of usage licensing has been transferred to you in writing, you have no legal right to use the images. If you have a photographer shoot a project for you and just hand you a thumb drive with the images, you paid for nothing. Get the transfer of the copyright licensing in writing!
How does this apply to photography?
Photographs have a shelf life. Clothing and furniture styles change, old products are updated and new ones introduced, employees come and go, companies move and add locations and facilities. Commercial photographs need to change along with all of those business variables, and so a photograph that works today may or may not be the right image in 2 or 3 years. It sounds obvious, but before a photograph is created by a photographer, the photograph doesn't exist. It is the action of the photographer that creates an image. And it’s his control of an image’s use through licensing that is the foundation of the business model for professional photography. The license not only grants use rights to licensors, but provides a mechanism to prevent or prosecute the theft and un-authorized exploitation of an image by non-licensed parties, like a client’s competitors.
There are two fundamental advantages in the image license model to the consumer. First, since each different type of use is factored into the license cost, clients can purchase only the uses they need, instead of purchasing an expensive “all-use for all-time” license which would be prohibitively expensive. The second advantage is that if the image proves successful for the client, the license can be renewed at the end of its term, usually for a fee substantially less than the cost of a new photo shoot.
There is a third advantage, often overlooked by clients, is the very real incentive to the photographer to work even harder to create exceptional images. If the goal from the beginning is to create images that exceed the client’s expectations, and if there is a reward for that effort in the form of future licensing revenues from images that continue to offer value to our clients, the result is a win-win situation, with the client saving money on future shoots and the photographer being compensated for outstanding and timeless work.
Often clients don’t want to have to decide how their images will be used up front. Although that sounds reasonable, with a little investigation of advertising and publishing history, a fairly accurate expectation of uses can be identified. This is invaluable to both the client and the photographer so that, in the estimating process, the professional photographer can address requirements for resolution, size, media and methods for display and publication, and ensure that the images produced will meet the technical requirements for use.
This discussion won’t be complete without a mention of the wildly popular concept of “Work For Hire”. Irrelevant, yet often proffered in client-supplied contracts, “Work For Hire” is an attempt by corporations to gain the immediate copyright ownership for work done by employee photographers, without actually employing those workers. “Work For Hire” clauses typically assume that the company, not the photographer, will get immediate ownership of each image copyright upon creation (just as would happen in the case of works created by a company employee), but are accompanied by an “Independent Contractor” clause that states that the photographer IS NOT an employee, must work as a completely independent entity (providing his/her own equipment, transportation, insurance coverages, liability indemnification, tax responsibilities) and relinquishing any and all rights to use of the images they make, and standard employee benefits like guaranteed contracted employment, health care coverage, participation in pension and retirement plans, company-provided tools and equipment, coverage under blanket company insurance for liability, errors and commissions protections, and workman compensation in the event of an accident. Often presented at the last minute as a requirement for awarding a project that has already been negotiated, this is a one-sided, rights-grabbing tactic that inexperienced photographers often agree to without understanding its impact, but which experienced professionals recognize as an untenable demand and almost categorically strike from the contract.
If a client truly feels that they need the unrestricted use of an image, with unlimited rights in perpetuity (and on planets yet to be discovered in galaxies as yet unseen), a license can be created to give them those rights. It will, however, be expensive. Some might say ‘out of this world.