Why NOT to give away your copyrights

I keep seeing up-and-coming photographers on Facebook offering packages that give away high resolution digital images, and worse yet, their COPYRIGHTS.

Here are 5 important reasons NOT to give your copyrights away:

“Flyin’ Ryan” / Photo Copyright © Nancy L. Ford Photography

1. Stock images are an important source of income to photographers. Just like musicians or authors receive royalties every time one of their songs or books are sold, so do photographers. So unless you have an unlimited source of income, like from the lottery, remind yourself before you do something so foolish that you have camera/studio/computer equipment to buy and/or a child to get through college. I make $2000-$5000 a year average reselling images that are sitting around doing nothing, without any effort. You can too.

2.  Prints are an important source of income for photographers. Years ago, when our parents brought us to get our portraits taken, the photographers would give contacts sheets or proofs with “proof” written across the photos. Why? So people wouldn’t try to reproduce them. Why? Because prints are a good mark up item. Why? Because they pay for the outrageous costs of running a studio: Rent, supplies, utilities, business insurance, employees, marketing, etc. I am not sure where this whole system went haywire, but I see now consumers, like brides, expect getting the high res digital files in their packages. Who the hell started this and why??  Good going. You ruined it for all professional photographers. You spend hours retouching and editing. The profit you make on print sales covers your time editing and retouching.  (Which why it’s good to give your clients a breakdown of your fees: Photography, editing, retouching, difficult retouching, expenses, etc. The break down helps your client budget better, and stops them from adding on to a shoot or picking too many photos to retouch, without expecting to pay a dime more.)

3.  Control over what happens to your photos PART I:  If you give away your copyrights, and someone uses the photo inappropriately, you have no recourse. That is not good for your reputation.

Bear on Pet Commerce cover.

4.  Control over what happens to your photos PART II: Give away your photos to a parent, the parent sends the photo in to a contest and wins $5000. You get nothing. She owns the photo. She can sell it, give it away to a national magazine to use in a national TV ad. You get nothing. Nada. NOTHING!  Chances of that happening? Maybe slim. But it does happen. I took a photo of one of my dogs in college for a class project. That photo has ended up on the cover of 2 different trade magazines, and in one advertisement. Hey, you never know.

5.  Control over what happens to your photos PART III: Loosing all rights. You take the best photo of your life of a little girl. You are so proud of that image. What a great portfolio piece!  You put it in your portfolio. You use it in an exhibit. Guess what? Nope. You gave away your copyrights. If the parent/or client, for some reason, says you can’t use it anymore for any reason, say goodbye to it. You can no longer use it in your portfolio, web site, exhibit…. NOTHING. You can even be legally compelled to delete every instance of that photo from your files. If you want to use that photo to advertise your business, you will have to get written permission from the person you sold the copyrights too.

Devaluing the skill of photography

There are several reasons professional photography (especially consumer photography) has been devalued so much.

Some photographers work out of their homes and have no overhead. They see they can get more business if they offer lower prices and give away their images. They can afford to do this. Can they really? A lot of the time, these are professional photographers just starting out, or seasoned amateurs looking to make extra income. If you plan on making a career out of this, think smart and think ahead. First point: Chances are, you will not be working out of your home forever.  You will need more space and will not want strangers coming in your home.  Second, you need to make more money so you can save money so when you decide to make the leap into getting a studio, you will have start up money and will not suffer a life of poverty like I did for 3 years. Third: More lenses + better (and backup 2nd) camera + great lighting gear = EXPENSIVE!!!

Digital photography and automatic features on modern cameras has made it much easier for the average person to try their hand at professional photography. There is no longer a need to understand the complications of using shutter speeds and depth of field or acquire the skill of following focus to get a half-way decent photo.  It’s no longer necessary to hire professionals who have the difficult skill of retouching prints. Anyone with a photo editing program can learn to retouch photos. Now there are a zillion hobbyists turned “professional”–those who did not invest in an education to study photography.  These are the people who can’t understand why professionals charge so much because, “See! I can do this!”  These are the first people to devalue their own work and give it away. They have started the trickle effect of the up-and-coming serious professionals to give away images and copyrights to compete for the business. After all, these “photography-as-a-second-income people” do it because they love it and not for the money.  Well good for you and thank you for respecting those who do it for a living.



Photo Copyright © Nancy L. Ford Photography

If you want more business, then work to get more business by becoming a better photographer, and not by lowering your prices, giving away digital images and giving away copyrights.  If you are good, they will come. They will come and not demand your high res images and copyrights. They will believe in you.  If you are unable to explain to customers who do not understand, then post something like this on your web site: http://www.ppa.com/findaphotographer/copyright.php. It will give you more credibility.

You will not become rich being a photographer unless you are the next Annie Leibovitz. Expect struggle in the beginning, and you will be poor for at least 3-5 years unless you land a nice contract. If you get discouraged, read Malcome Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success.”  The more time and effort you put into photography, the more successful you will become.

Last bit of advice: Believe in yourself. You will loose jobs at first from selfish people who won’t open their minds and try to understand, and may even try to make you feel “ridiculous” for charging “so much.” As your reputation for being a good photographer that is easy to work with grows, you won’t care about loosing those clients. Trust me.

As Joe McNally so eloquently put it in a recent blog post, it will not be an easy journey.  But if you love what you’re doing, you will stand the drought and you’ll learn to have faith, and one day you will be dancing in the rain.



Written by Nancy L. Ford

May 8th, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Taken from the arterial in Utica, NY in 2004, is one of my highest revenue producing image. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

This entry was posted in Commercial Photography, Photography, Photojournalism, Portrait Photography, Wedding Photography.

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