Intellectual Property and Odd Coincidences

Last Tuesday I spent my evening giving a talk at the London College of Fashion alongside Gwen Thomas of the Association of Photographers. I’d stepped in for a friend who didn’t fancy standing up in front of a hundred or so people. I gave my old standard talk about basic business stuff, survival, finance and so on, and Gwen talked about Intellectual Property and Copyright law, licensing and so on and so forth. Gwen is an expert on the subject, and has been influential in, amongst other things, the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (that’s the current one, fact fans), and is heavily involved in lobbying for our industry at both a national and international level.

Contract - Intellectual Property
Contract. Always read these closely

The talk was organised by a group called Own-It, who regularly put together events of this kind, aimed at improving knowledge of intellectual property as well as other business issues for creatives. The entire talk should soon be available from their site as a podcast, though it’s not ready as I write this. Besides the talk given by myself and Gwen, there’s tonnes of other useful stuff on there as well.

Funnily enough Gwen gave a similar talk to me, back when I was in the first year at college (1996), and although there have been a few refinements since then, a lot of the fundamentals have remained the same. In a nutshell, go and buy Beyond the Lens (which Gwen helped write) absorb all the info about Copyright/Licensing/Moral Rights/Contracts and then try your very best to incorporate it into your business practice. This stuff is really, really important. Without knowledge of it you will get screwed over on a very regular basis, and could miss out on a fortune over the years.

There isn’t the space or time to go into enormous detail in this post about copyright and so on, as I could do nothing more than scratch the surface. Plus, since it’s a legal issue, it makes more sense if you go straight to the horses’ mouth. However, I was prompted to write this post by a coincidence that occurred the other day.

Part of what Gwen talked about last week, and which I was able to chip into, was regarding editorial contracts – the ones you sign once you work for a magazine regularly. I currently have contracts with 3 of the biggest magazine publishing companies in the UK. They don’t guarantee me any work by the way, they simply set out the terms by which the work will be paid for, commissioned, licenced and so on. I have fought tooth and nail, and had some quite lengthy conversations with respective legal departments to secure for myself what are called “qualified rights” contracts. These basically allow the magazines exclusive first use of the work they commission, with some degree of discounted syndication thereafter. This is why, as I’ve mentioned on other occasions on this blog, you don’t see pictures of something I shot immediately after the shoot. I never give away the copyright of my work, as if I do so I sign away any and all rights to the image in perpetuity – that’s anything and everything just to make that clear. I’d even have to ask permission to put the image in my portfolio.

Now, on more than one occasion I’ve been handed a contract before I received the qualified rights one. This puppy is normally the “all rights” one, and it does pretty much what it says on the tin – I sign away all rights to the image in return for the one payment (not a higher payment I might point out – the same as the “qualified” one). I then politely slide this one back across the table and ask for the “qualified” one. If they don’t have one, I ask them to draw one up, and if they refuse, I walk away. It’s as simple as that.

What has to be borne in mind here is that whilst it may seem like I’m doing myself out of lots of potential work by walking away, in the long term I’m saving myself a ton of grief. I already make some healthy extra money from syndication, and that will grow as my library of work does. I’m also shooting more and more recognisable faces which have a resale value in their own right. If I signed all this off for one payment, I’d be diddling myself out of quite a lot of money over the coming years. Likewise, any time I wanted to put an image on Flickr, or on this blog, or my website, or my own portfolio I’d have to ask permission, and possibly even pay a fee. That would suck.

Now, here’s the coincidence. I shall be very careful what I say, as obviously I’m on legal territory here, so apologies if I seem a little ambiguous.

In the post the other morning was a letter from a magazine who I shot for in January. I’d received the job in a very last minute fashion, over the phone, had met both the Editor and Art Director, supplied all the images, and the shoot ran as the cover and an inside feature at the start of February. The letter contained a “standard” contract, which I was asked to sign and return to ensure I could work for them again. It contained 3 particularly juicy clauses:

  1. The old favourite “all rights to any image you shoot for us” clause.
  2. A clause limiting payment to “fees only”, which basically denies me the right to charge for any expenses.
  3. A clause that sets down the payment terms. Suffice to say these aren’t very generous. In fact they stink.

There were a few other darlings in there as well, but that’s the stuff I’ve really taken issue with.

At this moment in time the discussion with their legal department is still ongoing, so I can’t tell you about the inevitably happy ending just yet. I bring it to people’s attention to highlight the fact even in this day and age, when things like copyright should be fairly well understood by anyone working in this industry, there are always those who will try it on given half a chance, and it pays to read things before you sign them!

And finally, as a little teaser, I’ve just got back from an exhausting shoot in the Highlands of Scotland for Men’s Fitness. The piece won’t be out until late March/early April, and there’s the usual embargo on putting images up before they’ve been published, but to whet your appetite a little it involved myself and a journalist “surviving” for 48 hours in officially the most remote part of the UK. We even had good weather on one of the days as well. Parts of me (well, most of me actually) still aches from carrying about 20KG of gear across 26 miles of very rough terrain.

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