On Giving Your Photography Clients Copyright

Photographers! Stop the madness!

Over and over, I see pricelists where people say that their clients get the copyright with their DVD of photographs / digital negatives / high-resolution negatives.

No, no, no, no!

You are NOT giving your clients the copyright! You are giving them a License for Personal Use! (Actually, you are selling it to them, as part of the price tag on selling your digital files.)

While this may seem like semantics, it isn’t. These are actual, LEGAL terms. They have a meaning behind them. It is pretty important. If you give your clients the Copyright on their images, it means that they have the rights to do everything with them and you have NO more rights to use them.

You can’t sell them a print. No more canvases either. You can’t make them an album from their photographs. You can’t display the work in your portfolio. Or on your blog. THEY have all the rights with the copyright. YOU have none left if you give it to them.

This has a monetary impact on you & your business!

If you include a License for Personal Use, they can use the photographs to make their own prints. YOU can still use the photographs for everything else. YOU can still make money off of your photographs by selling them other products.

They are two very different things. Educate your clients on the difference if needed (because someone has told them to ask for the copyright on the photos even though the use license is what they really need), but do NOT give away your copyright!

Think of it as a bundle of sticks – you want to keep some of them for yourself, and you want to share some of them with your clients. You do not want to give them the whole bundle! This great stick analogy is courtesy of Katie Sunstrom, who I did a presentation with on Photographers & Copyright at PhotoCamp Houston back in 2009.

If you’d like more information on copyright law, be sure to follow Plagiarism Today – Jonathan Bailey is an awesome guy and his site is full of great information.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney. Please consult your attorney for legal guidance on copyright issues. Just so we’re clear.

Christine Tremoulet - Business Coach for Professional Photographers

Author: Christine

Business Coach for Professional Photographers, founder of Photographer's Inner Circle, and Best-Selling Author. Blogger since 2000, I named WordPress. My Superpower: Helping entrepreneurs like you use the power of storytelling across blogging & social media to magnetize clients and dominate your market. It is time to stop believing the lies of the Perfection Culture. I live in Houston, Texas when I'm not traveling in my Mini Cooper.

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  • Great post! A photographer local to me gives away what she calls “copy write.” She’s cheap as chips, too, so no surprises. *sigh*

  • Thank you for making this so easy to understand! It is such a small, yet important, distinction. We should all be this mindful of the details.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this, I have shared it with many of the ‘start up’ photographers that go through my husbands class at the local college.. and some that have been in ‘business’ for a while! Have a great day!

  • Wow, I’d like to think that people aren’t that, er, naive – but I’m really not that surprised! I only recently stopped giving my clients digital image files with their session (with personal license) because I can’t sustain a business by doing so. They’ll take their files down to Walgreen’s or Wal-Mart and get crappy prints on the cheap and I’m left making zero profit! I would NEVER give up my copyright and my contracts and model releases make sure my clients understand this!

  • Thank you so much for this post. Truly helped in dealing with a client today. I’m hoping they see my point of view after having the ammo to use (terms) in defending my rights! Thanks so much!

  • I hope this thread is still live. I am making a coloring book for someone. I am taking photos inside their private club, of their buildings, desaturating the photos, then compiling it into said coloring book. They sent me a work for hire contract which essentially said they own every picture, etc. from now until eternity in every format, etc. and I’m not to use them ever. I understand they want to protect their privacy and I have no interest in using the pictures again, 20 of them. So not even sure how to approach this, or even if I want to, based on the rest of the work for hire contract. How would you even price photos in this scenario?

  • Erin, that is a bit of a unique situation since it is a work for hire project, and they are hiring you, ultimately, to create the coloring book. In the past when I worked for a web agency and took photos at a client job site, it was part of my job – and I charged nothing extra.

    If you feel you need to charge them something, I’d go to ASMP.org and look up their information on commercial pricing — they are my go-to experts in this situation!

    Hope that helps!

  • I guess I will find out if this tread is still alive. Okay, I do fashion photography and was partly scammed by two photogs when I started out and acquired a failed business in the purchase of an 8 unit strip mall. To quickly explain the situation, I was try to sell the couple semi loads of swimwear rather than throwing all the worthless (to me) inventory in a huge dumpster slated for the landfill. This was also after attempting to give it all away to every female I knew. No Takers!

    The accustion of the property came with a successor contract for the two photogs if anyone intended to take over the business. That was never my intentions! However they found out about the sale and I talk with them and our attorney said that contract was legit. I talked to them and we scheduled a photo shoot with 2 models they had used. Meanwhile I contacted the State to ensure the form business was dissolved and I filed for a new business entity. Just prior to the shoot, looking at their photography contract was questionable and a red flag. I didn’t like the terms, so I penned in my own in the margins and initialed and dated every amendment, which they laughed and said I could do that on a pre-printed contract and it would not hold up in court. Just to be clear, I penned in that I get joint copyrights ownership to any and all photos. (this is where Cristine is correct to use the right verbiage and I have witnessed legal matters over “and/or” in a contract). I foolishly handed over a a few grand and then again to get a CD of 25 images. Note- I was clear in the contract that I needed a front, side, back shot of each garment and a close up of any features or embellishments. 25 outfits X 4 = 100 minimum! Again I got 25 and most were sexy glamour shots of the model where the suit was obstructed. Of course they gave me a ton of crap, telling me about copyrights, blah, blah, blah! SCREW YOU!

    I had a release and posted them on place like eBay which was fair new at the time. A week later I got a cease and desist letter along with a bill from their attorney for licensing from $250 to $5000 per image, per use! If I didn’t pay they would take me to court. Go for it! They did!

    I didn’t hire an attorney but represented myself pro se. If you read a lot of Rachel Brenke’s articles on the TheLawTog, you will get more educated. and I agree with about 95% of her content. In court these so -called professional photogs clowns had not business registration with the State. Nor did they have any filings with the State Dept. of Taxation nor the IRS. – That is tax evasion people! They didn’t know it but initiated investigations with the State and the Feds. There is business law and consumer law as well as other areas. In short, these clowns were ripping people off and attempting to hide behind copyright law. One might ask, but yeah they had an attorney and so it was legal! Not so fast! One thing I have yet to see on such sites or on any of Rachel’s is the darker side of things that go on. Attorneys are governed by Rules of Professional Conduct, which in my state is the State Supreme Court (not the Bar Association) and the Disciplinary Counsel. So, to cool their lawyer’s jets of his “Objection!” every other minute. I advised the court that I had filed a grievance for Misconduct under Rule 8.4 for helping these clowns engage in deceptive business practices. Plus I filed a counter suit. See where this gets messy?

    In short, the court found it unreasonable to allow the use of commercial images under licensing for seven (7) as no legit business could garner the needed sales in that short time frame! The court stated 30 days would have been found to be reasonable. Second, the clowns were not just committing tax evasion on two levels which those agencies sought their own action and came after them. But they were engaging in deceptive business practice and using the hostage of digital image as a means of extortion, not with just me and the former owner, but with at least 15 other local businesses. The court considered their actions as extortion, price gouging and profiteering, especially when I asked them to provide evidence of how they came up with their pricing…. went off of what other were charging. No two businesses are the exact same nor have the exact same expenses. You might want to keep that in mind! Plus because the State dissolve the form business and I filed for new entity, the contract was null in void as the business no longer existed prior to the shoot. I did get cautioned by the court on this to not ever attempt to try this to get out of paid a debt. But that was not the intent!

    The State and the IRS forced these clowns… wait… Professional Artists to sell off personal assets such as cars, houses, camera equipment, etc. to pay back taxes. The dumbasses had a website and please remember there is a listing or domain name database that show when each website was created. Screen shots evidenced their for profit services and some pricing as well as other clients. Basically told on themselves and why I didn’t need an expensive lawyer!

    As for the attorney, the State’s Disciplinary Counsel found him guilty of Misconduct and played a major role in the scam to strike legal fear into anyone who didn’t pay their wild fee and licensing fees.

    I was award just over $100K in damages and asked the court that payment be made back to the former owner of the business, a single mother who used her retirement money to start business and pay thes con artists!

    Now then, today I have about two dozen real estate agent and firms I do real estate photography for. I don’t want of need those rights! I got paid for my services. Plus I generally make more doing the home inspections. I don’t want or need tons of storage devices full of images of homes I have no interest in! As far as my fashion photography, I’m making new item and designs all the time. We all know fashion changes season to season and year to year. I have all of my design patterns and its hard to find a fabric pattern the same as 5 yrs ago. It may be discontinued from the supplier. So what do I do with those images? I turn them over to a few local colleges so photography students can edit them and learn from them. The fashion design students see various designs I have made, Do I care if they copy my designs? Hell no! They can do whatever ever the hell they want with them. Stop and think about. Do I want to keep images of suits I made 10 years ago on my webstore that I no longer make or sell? Hell no!

    So, YES, yes, yes, yes give the rights it clients if you don’t want or need them. Or assign or transfer joint copyright ownership. If you think you might have a need for them in the future or you are one who has gaps in business and you feel the need to retain the right to make more more off of them, then yeah, keep the right and provide a license. Let me give a quick prime example, Is Adobe going to give up their rights to their software? No! But people like me I still have copies of CS4 and CS5 as well as earlier version on CD. They still work just fine and still use them. But was Adobe losing money on customers like me? You bet! No need to upgrade annually and that is one reason I switched over to Capture One. When you nickle and dime clients to death and they jump ship and use their cellphones, don’t get mad!

    My advice while I fully understand what Christine is trying to get across and agree with partially. Stop and evaluated your photography, your business and services. I’m all for any photog to succeed,and make money. But be legit! Don’t be so tight fisted on everything! Work with your clients. If they have a need for the rights and you pushed the shutter button and have no need for the rights, give them to them! That is how I gained most of my clients who are repeat customers. They complain about other photogs not giving photos, not having their choice of images, not liking their editing. ruining images with watermarks, etc. Keep it up as you all are keep me in business!