Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

The photography world -- the business, the culture, the art, the politics, the technology.

Site Feed

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

My Photo
Location: Santa Cruz, California, United States
My Books on the
Photography Business

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Work-for-hire contracts: when they're great

On Apr 28, 8:09am, paml@mind.net wrote:
I have an opportunity to do some potentially steady seasonal work for a large local corporation shooting flowers and plants when in bloom for their "Master Bloom" list. The images would primarily be used in catalogs and on posters, possibly on-line. Being the corporate entity they are, they have many lengthy legal documents outlining their terms which includes doing the work as "work for hire" and assigning all rights, forever to them. I naturally don't agree in principle to them owning the copyright, however, the images might have very limited stock potential for me and are most likely not unique or difficult to obtain. And, I would gain freelance experience working with a major Corp client. I'm leaning towards a higher fee for giving up rights, but am not sure if this all is a good idea or not. Any thoughts?


There is nothing wrong in principle with "work-for-hire" contracts. They get a bad rap for two reasons:

1) Most who ask for them don't really need them. They just misunderstand what their own needs are, and oversimplify the paradigm: "I'm paying you to shoot, so I should own the images."

2) Most photographers do the same thing, but in the opposite direction: they are so used to hearing that such contracts are "bad for photographers", it's become a Pavlovian response to "just say no."

The reality is that work-for-hire contracts can sometimes be excellent opportunities for many reasons, and yours is the classic example: you are being offered a job to shoot material that has very little commercial value outside of that one client. The value of the copyrights are next to nil, and the additional fact that there are already plenty of other images on the market just like it underscore the lack of continued economic opportunity with these photos.

Yet, the best advantage you have is that you can use this as a negotiation token to demand a high shooting fee. Feigning the "oppressed photographer" persona, you can pretend to whine about how you have to give up copyrights, so you need to make up for years of lost financial opportunity with a higher shooting fee.

What that fee is, well, that's going to depend on your negotiating skills. It sounds like they're going to sell a lot of products with this, so their "investment" in the images has probably been calculated ahead of time: they know they can't get these kinds of rights in an unlimited and unrestricted fashion through an agency without paying through the nose.... So, you need to figure out what size that "nose" is, and figure you're worth at least a nostril. This makes it mutually beneficial. In other words, figure out what the license fee might be for an image to be used for a few of those products, and multiply that by the number of products they're likely to want to sell, and then by the number of images they'd likely want/need/get. Figure you should get anywhere from 10% to 30% of that.

Disclaimer: I don't know any other details about this relationship, so my off-the-cuff formula might be way out of bounds. That's your job to figure it out. But keep in mind that this is what most Advertising Photographers do on a daily basis. They never own (or even want to own) copyrights to their images, and they fully expect to shoot on a work-for-hire basis, giving all the images to the client, never to be seen again (except for their portfolios). Their methods for calculating fees are probably similar to what I mentioned, but I'm sure they're all different due to differences in the industries they shoot for.

Last word of caution: if they call your bluff on the "oppressed photographer" strategy, they just might opt for a lower fee and not requiring the work-for-hire/copyright ownership language, leaving you with the worst of both worlds: a lot of hum-drum images that have no financial future, and a pittance for payment for doing it.

Let me know what happens...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

When "strictly speaking" and "practical reality" collide

On Apr 26, 9:45pm, cgolesch@cgolesch.com wrote:
I visited an exhibition at a well known gallery, which deals with major, world renowned living artists. ... I asked if i could bring my camera. Both the gallery and the artist gave me permission to shoot... The question is: Do I have permission to use the photographs to promote myself, post them on my web site, use them in my portfolio, mail a photo to other prospective artists, or do I need a model or permission release from the artist?


You've described a scenario that's pretty common, but also extremely casual, which means that more is inferred than what people expected or necessarily intended. This doesn't necessarily mean trouble, but it could if the wind changes. What this leads to is a dissonance between two answers to your question. First, there's the "strictly speaking" answer, and then there's "the pragmatic reality" answer. In other words, you're going to have a huge grey area between two extremes. But first, let's establish the ground rules:

Strictly speaking, verbal agreements mean nothing, since if someone says something is ok one day, there is absolutely nothing in place to hold that person to his word, were he to change his mind later on. Verbal agreements are enforceable in only the rarest and most specific of conditions, none of which apply to a context such as this. I believe I've used the expression often enough in my book that you should have it memorized: verbal agreements aren't even worth the paper they're written on (a quote from Samuel Goldwin). So, basically, you really have no solid ground to do anything of "substantial commercial value" with those images without incurring substantial risk.

That's one extreme... But then again, you have no intentions of doing anything of "commercial value" (as you stated it). Which leads to the other end of the spectrum:

Casual uses such as those you described usually don't alarm or concern most people, and here's where your personal risk assessment skills come in. Your question was: are you "allowed" to use those images? That is up to no one but the subject of the photos, so it's based on your trust in his word that it's ok. There is no other "law" that would pre-empt his decision, so "allowed" is an entirely subjective answer: it's up to the artist. Again, the question is "what's the risk?" My feeling on the matter starts with the two extremes noted above, but where the grey area narrows is where you start to get into situations that usually require (or don't require) a model release. For example:

If you were to eventually license one of those pictures to a company for advertising purposes, you'd probably get a call from someone's lawyer sooner or later.

On the other hand, if you were to license the image to a publisher for use in a school textbook discussing artists in the 21st century, you'd be fine, since such uses do not require a release.

The "middle ground" between those two scenarios is where the academic discussion begins, and where things get muddy and SPECULATIVE. I used caps on that to emphasize the notion that you're not technically released because you have nothing written, but not all uses require a release, so it'd depend on the case-by-case circumstances of any given use before one could really say for sure what sort of trouble you could get yourself into. Using the images on your website or in a portfolio is not likely to alarm anyone, and even if it did, there's too little financial incentive to bother doing anything about it. "Technically," this is your call.

Anyone who expresses a confident statement one way or another beyond that is just misinformed. One can certainly express an opinion of "risk assessment," and I could imagine that some photographers could say you're risk is higher or lower, but again, it's entirely speculation on their part based on personal biases towards their risk tolerance. Most photographers are overly paranoid, while others are insanely carefree about such subjects. It's up to you to determine where your comfort zone is... And I promise, this "zone" will adjust over time based on how your business sense evolves. (You don't get more or less conservative--there's no rule here.)

As for your question: using the image in your portfolio and on your website is probably going to be just fine.