What are Usage Rights and Why do Photographers Need Them?

Usage Rights
Photo by Adeib El Masri

No one can deny that the internet is an amazing tool. Deemed the “World Wide Web” it does indeed feel as if you have the whole world at your fingertips. Yet, with this kind of power there comes greater dangers. The internet is a wonderful place and a ruthless one. For artists, it’s about losing their art, their self-expression to those who think it is fair to steal something they love and call it their own, and often times no one is held accountable. Before, many didn’t understand why it mattered so much if someone else posts one of your photos as their own. “It’s a form of flattery isn’t it?” Maybe so, but would we feel the same way if someone plagiarized someone’s writing, or stole someone’s identity to make crazy purchases, or catfished someone? It needs to change, and it’s beginning to with more and more photographers coming forward about copyright infringement on their work, but in the meantime, it’s important to know the steps you should take to protect your own work from being stolen.

I remember that this happened to me. I had posted a photo of my college campus on Instagram. This boy that I went to school with, who was in a few of my classes, but who rarely talked to me took the photo and reposted it on his Facebook without giving me any credit. What he deemed credit was saying, “Taken by a friend from college” So fine. He did say it wasn’t his own photo, but no one knew who had actually taken it and this bothered me because of how easy it is to tag someone in a comment. This isn’t even a big deal in comparison to the stories I have heard from friends of mine. Feature pages on Instagram take their photos and never give credit, other people make whole accounts using all of someone else’s photos pretending they are their own. Of course, you can report things like this, but and the accounts can be taken down, but nothing is ever really done to correct the mistake.

Photo by Adeib El Masri

So let’s talk about usage rights and what they are.

Copyright is a legal means to protect an author’s work. It means that any content that the author has created cannot be used or published by anyone else without the consent of the author. The question that continued to be asked was “Do copyright laws apply to the internet?” It’s no secret that technology develops much faster than the laws that govern it. For a long time, it was believed that anything posted or shared online was fair game for everyone. This is not true and as long as material satisfies these three elements below then copyright automatically protects it from being used freely.

  1. Fixed in a tangible medium: In other words, the idea behind the work must be able to be seen, heard, or understood by others. Photographs automatically fill this category.
  2. Original: This one gets a little tricky in my opinion because how much of anyone’s work can really be considered original anymore? When we create an image inspired by someone else’s does originality go out the window? Are you beginning to see how it can be complicated?
  3. Creative: the material must also be creative. What? How creative? Mind-blowing? Unrealistically? There are so many ways in which something can be creative so ho do we measure that? Don’t worry the Supreme Court has a definition for you.  “…the requisite level of creativity is extremely low; even a slight amount will suffice. No matter how crude, humble, or obvious” it might be. So I guess based off this we are all creative, it’s like the everyone gets an award thing.

Those are the three ways that your work will be automatically protected by copyright. There also isn’t much monitoring going on by a higher authority. Therefore it’s a photographers job to protect their own work and how can they do this? By being very clear with clients in their contracts.

For photographers, there are four distinct usage categories that should be identified to clients.

Photo by Adeib El Masri

1. Usage Rights: Digital Usage Rights

Digital s a very broad term because of how vast the internet is. When you have digital usage rights of a product then you may only use its digital version. It cannot be used anywhere other than the digital world/community and it also cannot be used for commercial purposes.

2. Print Rights

This entails the hard, physical form of a photograph. So when you sell a print you can choose to give your client Print rights. A print release gives someone permission to reproduce your images for their own personal use. Personal use is the key term here. If a client wanted to make prints, canvases, albums, t-shirts, etc, they are more than welcome to do that for themselves and their entire family. They are, however, prohibited from using them for commercial reasons.

Under Print Rights You CANNOT:

  • Edit or alter the images in any way, including cropping and filters.
  • Claim the work as your own.
  • Use them for commercial gain.

3. Commercial Rights

When you grant a client commercial rights to your photos you are saying it is ok for them to use the images as a means of monetary gain in ads, marketing, promotions etc. of various causes/projects/campaigns. You are allowing others to use your work as a way to promote their work. This should be given a time limit so pictures that you take cannot be used forever. Perhaps 1-2 years.

4. Social Rights

Social rights of a photo allows clients to use the photos on social media, but if the editor from some upscale magazine approaches you and wants to feature your beautiful sunset profile picture with your husband in their summer issue you must say no because you do not own the rights to sell that photo to a third party.

Now that you know some of the usage terms let’s discuss why it’s important to have a contract in place and to have conversations with your clients about what is and is not okay in terms of usage.

Photo by Adeib El Masri

As a photographer, if you do not have a license or agreement in place then you are essentially leaving the client completely free to interpret the usage rights of your photos in any way that they see fit. Having that license makes it apparent what the usage rights are for a particular project to you and the client. When you issue a license agreement you are renting your images to clients for their specific needs rather than selling the rights of a photo permanently. As a business professional you must protect yourself from disputes with clients and draft up an agreement that both parties can be satisfied with and understand is the key to long-term, prosperous relationships with the people who pay for your services.

The best example of why you need to openly declare your usage rights expectations is the Nike Logo story. The creator of the Nike swoosh logo was originally paid $35 for her design. Since there was no license in place the creator of the logo wasn’t entitled to any royalties once the company took off. Her art is now one of the most recognized logos in the entire world. She gave it away for such a small amount. Nike was decent to her and rewarded her with company shares, but not everyone will be that decent and you never ever as a photographer want to sell yourself short and watch as your work inspires many without due credit and compensation.

So photographers stay vigilant. Do your research. Protect who you are. The more serious you take yourself and your passion, the more serious others will take you and the less likely it will be for you to see your hard work being used by someone else without credit to you.

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