About copyright, licensing, and rates.

In these tough economic times it is hard for small business to survive.  Perhaps they can not compete with larger business models that have a diverse portfolio allowing them to undercut costs and forcing small business to close their doors.  Perhaps they simply cannot offer the necessary goods or services their clients need and they shop elsewhere. Or perhaps it simply boils down to a depressed economy where high unemployment, low wages and banks not lending that cause a stagnating local economy.  This in turn leads to very little extra capital for clients to spend on advertising, artists on portfolios or families on portraits.  During these times it is important to keep in a mind a few key concepts to offer both value to your clients and keep your business profitable – they are rates, licensing, and copyright.

With regards to rates, – there are a few misconceptions these days – the first is that rates are definable. This is largely an inaccurate measure since photography is not a simple formula that allows one to plug-in a set amount of costs and come out with a value for what one’s time is worth. A shoot in a studio with two assistants, five lights, and hours of editing and layering of various images to complete the final image is simply not the same as a head shot that comprises of 30 pictures, two outfit changes and 45 minutes of time with one assistant. While I enjoy working on the later image more, and not because they cost more, the reality is that few either have the time to do something as creative as scouting locations, discussing visual ideas, purchasing or making outfits, and one to two weeks of shoots and edits, let alone the cost involved in such a production. Acuity with angles, lighting, body language – even color plays an important role in evolving a dialogue that is both meaningful and effective. As an artist I appreciate the nuances that it takes to make great imagery exceptional and I continually look for new ways to work within the budget of my clients.

The second misconception is that how fast one works is a definable value for how much one should charge. This gets back to the age-old question of hourly rates which is an all too common occurrence these days and, in itself, is a fallacy. A few years back when I started out I used to do this same thing where I would sell my time and not my creative talents and my images. To put it bluntly – I simply do not work for hourly rates as this is counterproductive and sets a real bad precedence. No working professional if they wish to have a productive studio should charge by the hour. The reason for this is simple, the more experience you gain in composing, lighting, and working with your subjects the less money you will receive for your experience. This is the opposite of how value for skills should work as eventually you will find yourself making less the faster you become. Like any business it is necessary to break down costs of doing business from fixed costs (your time, insurance, rent, etc.) to variable ones (i.e. rentals, assistants, permits, etc.) Time, after all, is something they are not making more of and it is the one commodity, as artists, that we treasure the most. Use it wisely and be certain to charge properly.

The last aspect with regards to rates that I will discuss here is the concept of who owns the final image. Most hobbyist or non-professional simply toss all the images on a CD and let their client head off to Wal-Mart for prints. I have even come across some working professionals that have no idea that their work is protected under the US Copyright Title 17.  What this leads to is a work made for hire without the benefits, the salary, or protections that come along with the job.  This not only affects your ability to earn a living wage, it also undermines our ability and that of other photographers to demand a competitive rate that allows them to stay in business.   Understanding what the Copyright Law provides to you, the artists is not only important to managing your assets; it is the first step in becoming both independent and solvent.  Once one learns what value their images have it becomes easier to offer licensing to their clients, business, and private collectors, that allow us to value our work and time at a premium and give us both the revenue and time necessary to work on our own personal projects and to grow as artists.

The Copyright Law reads,

(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.

What this all boils down to are the following:

  1. Know your market.  Knowing your true worth to your clients allows you to offer services and goods that meet their expectations.
  2. Never be afraid of exploring new genres.  The days of specializing are long gone.  These days it is necessary, to be marketable, to have a toolkit if skills and artistic interests.  This isn’t selling your soul but freeing you as you will have the time and money to do those personal projects that you have wanted to do but have not had the time, or more importantly, the money.
  3. Educate yourself.  Simply put this means never stop learning or exploring new perspectives or paradigms.  Learn from others and when you have the time help educate those around you.  And always be open to new perspectives.
  4. Learn what it takes to run a business.  I know this is counterproductive from creating art since we did not fall in love with our profession because we wanted to get bogged down by money.  The truth however is that if one does take ownership early on it become that much harder once you start building a client list to make the switch-over.  Understand ROI and CODB by being aware of insurance, rent, equipment costs and replacements, salary, utilities, and all other overhead that is both tangible and intangible.
  5. Get signatures.  This is important since having these protects you legally in case it is necessary to enforce licensing – a handshake simply is not enough!
  6. License every image (and register it with the Copyright office.) – this is hard at first to understand the value or how best to do this.  Fortunately there are some great software and books out there that can help us understand the value our images give our clients.  Some of my favorites include:
    1. Cradoc Software fotoBiz
    2. Blinkbid quote software
    3. Best Business Practices for Photographers
    4. ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography

Update (9/11/2014)

After spending the last year with Bloom Magazine I found myself bringing in new clients through referrals from Bloom Magazine.  This was great news as I was working a lot of hours completing new projects.  However I started to find my work being re-purposed early on and spent a lot of time on phone calls and in meetings with clients trying to smooth out contracts that had been breached.

Because the images were often being used for advertising in Bloom Magazine, once my images landed in their hands my creative rights on more than one occasion were usurped.  I was never aware if it was Bloom Magazine that was selling my images to their client or if it was their designer, Kay Lee Johnston, looking to use artwork created for one project and to then re-purpose the artwork.  The clients and the Editor, Malcolm Abrams were not very helpful. Instead, when I brought up the issue of licensing I was pressured by the editor to either give my work away or to sell it for a fraction of the cost else I would never find work in the industry again.  Needless to say I made the conscious decision to make a clean break with the magazine since I could no longer trust their leadership.

To any writer or photographer tempted to work with Malcolm Abrams or Bloom Magazine I suggest use cautious optimism when it comes to any business dealings with the editor or the designer.  Be certain to always clearly state purpose of images, file your copyrights early and often, and check to make certain that magazines, designers, or clients are not using your images without permission, and always be certain that licensing and agreements are properly signed and dated.