When I take on a commission or a collaboration, one of the first things that I am asked about is copyright. Usually the company will tell me that they want to own the copyright of the images that they are commissioning. I understand this, it sounds reasonable, they are paying for a piece of work, they want to own it.

I always say no. 

I insist on retaining the copyright to the images I shoot. In the UK and USA, by default it is the photographer who owns the copyright to commissioned work. In South Africa it is not. The commissioning company automatically owns the copyright and I insist that they sign it over to me in the contract. 

There are several reasons why I do this but first I must explain something... Instead of the copyright ownership, I give the organisation the same rights as if they had the copyright, with a few very important exceptions. Included in my quote is a license to use the images in any way they want, in any region, forever*. This license is subject to three very important exceptions:-

This license does not grant the right for:

  1. Sales of physical prints of the images.

  2. Sales of images through stock image libraries to third party organisations.

  3. Use of the images in any way that misrepresents the subject or aligns the subject with the sale of a product.

These exceptions are important in that they help me to control the integrity of the work and the way that it is used. I have a responsibility to the subjects that have allowed me in to their lives, told me their story and trusted me to use the image in a responsible way. In turn I make myself accountable to ensure that the images won't be used in a way that misrepresents them and, to do this, I need to be able to control who can use the images. 

This copyright arrangement is also crucial to my business in the long term. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. I am always going to push the hardest to get the work published in as many different places as possible. In fact, I actively work to continually promote my back catalogue of work. Long after the commissioning organisation have moved on to new projects, I will be setting up exhibitions and publishing photo essays that will be associated with the work of the organisation. If I have to ask permission every time I want to do this, I am less likely to do so.

  2. In 20 years time I may want to put together a retrospective of my work. The commissioning organisation may not exist anymore or the staff may have changed. I may well struggle to get permission to publish the images. This wouldn't happen the other way around, as the organisation would have a lifetime license to use the images, even if I wasn't around.

  3. I am often contacted by publications, asking to use images. I agree contracts and usage rights with the publications on an individual basis. If I don't own the copyright then I cannot do that and it becomes the commissioning organisations problem. In 5 years time, who is going to know where the high resolution files are and who is going to take responsibility for the licensing?

  4. I now have dozens of projects completed and currently in circulation, being published on an ongoing basis. If I own the copyright to some images but not others then this becomes unmanageable. I need to know that I own everything that I have created.

I work for the passion of making projects that have longevity and that remain relevant for many years to come, not just to make a quick paycheque out of a commission. It stands to reason that I am going to want to keep putting those images out into the world for years after the funders have ticked the boxes, filed the images away under “completed” and moved on to the next project. It is of benefit to everyone involved if I own the copyright.

*In this post I am specifically referring to collaborations based around documentary and portrait work outside of the realms of advertising. These licensing rules do not apply to advertising commissions.

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