Copyright and Usage Rights - a Primer

September 02, 2015  •  1 Comment

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen at a First Move chess event - event photography in New York City by Happening PhotosWord Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen congratulates a challenger at a First Move chess event held by America's Foundation for Chess, an organization that promotes chess in schools as a way of developing critical thinking skills.


[updated 2015-09-08]

Let’s face it - copyrights are not what you think about on weekends. It’s an obscure topic that most people, even some photographers, don’t consider until it’s time to draft a contract. In this article, I’ll briefly outline the basic issues and options so that you, as a photo buyer, can be sure that you’re getting what you need and not paying for things you don’t.

When you hire a photographer, one of the things you’re paying for - along with production expenses, shoot fees, postproduction time, and sometimes equipment rental - is a set of rights to use the photos. There are two basic approaches here: buy the images outright (a “buyout”) or pay just for rights to use the images in specific ways (“licensing”).

Buyout vs. Licensing
When you buy images outright, the photographer transfers to you the ownership of the copyright. You then have exclusive control over how and where the images are used. A buyout generally costs more than licensing because it includes all rights, including many you may not need, like the ability to print images on keychains and sell them at shopping mall kiosks (no, we’ve never done this, either). Also, in surrendering copyright, a photographer is giving up the ability to use the images to promote his business, so it’s normal to charge a buyout fee to make up for this loss of value. Still, there are situations in which a buyout might make sense. Say you or your client are holding a private event where trade secrets or other confidential information might be presented. Exclusive ownership of the images gives you total control over when, where and how the images are used.
For 99% of our event clients, licensing usage rights is the practical and cost-effective way to go. A typical agreement grants the rights to use the images in all media forever for purposes of promoting their events and business and for sharing with attendees for personal enjoyment. That usually covers all the bases. And, of course, we can tailor agreements to meet different needs. The advantage is that we can charge less by licensing because we get value out of being able to use our work to promote our business. As you might guess, photographers who can’t show any of their work face a, um, unique challenge when it comes to marketing their service.
Why Is This Even A Thing?
The topic came to mind recently after we encountered some misunderstandings among the general public and news stories about photos being appropriated from the internet and used commercially without permission. Our clients are pretty well informed, but many regular folks make two faulty assumptions related to copyright:
“I’m in the photo, so it’s my photo.”
I heard this one from an attendee several days after an event. Now, normally, if someone declines to be photographed, I respectfully move on. And, if an attendee requests a keepsake copy, I'm always happy to oblige, provided the client approves. The solution in this case was for the client not to use the photo, out of respect for the attendee's wishes.
The misunderstanding got me thinking, though, and it can be cleared up by the question, “Does the Mona Lisa belong to Leonardo da Vinci, who painted it, or to Lisa Gherardini, whose likeness it is thought to represent?” Yeah, it’s Leo’s painting. No controversy there. Well, photography is no different from painting, songwriting, or literature in this regard. A photo belongs to the person who made it, and US copyright law automatically assigns ownership of works of art, including photos, to their creators at the moment of creation.
“It’s on the internet, so I can do whatever I want with it.”
I think everyone can understand that if you see an online display, or if you're lucky enough to buy a print, of Ansel Adams’ stunning and world-famous “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” you are entitled to view it and enjoy it, but not to make and sell postcard-size copies on the street or use it in a national ad campaign.
Bottom Line
At Happening Photos, we offer both licensing and buyout terms in order to best serve various clients with diverse needs. When you contact us with an RFP, let us know which approach seems the best fit for you. We’ll be happy to discuss the pros and cons and will tailor a proposal that meets all your needs at the lowest possible cost.


Brad Hamilton(non-registered)
Well said, Jacques. Thanks for spelling it out in clear and simple terms. And I'm going to borrow the Mona Lisa analogy…I might even throw in her last name. Sounds like someone I went to high school with..!
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