Protect Your Copyright: It’s the Only Thing You Have That’s of Real Value

Updated:

It’s appalling how many companies are beginning to use under handed tactics to grab the copyright from photographers. The worst part is that it seems no one is doing anything about it, so companies continue to do it.

Just a few days ago I decided to volunteer for the American Diabetes Association Redmond Tour de Cure. I think its important for photojournalist to volunteer and give back to the community.

My volunteer work ranges from allowing non-profits to use my photographs, to being an event photographer. I donate my images to Tom’s Door in Basalt, Colo. They make postcards and sell them using the funds raised to help the needy in the Roaring Fork Valley. Coordinator Rosie McSwain is a wonderful person. She began the charity in 2003 or so.

For Aspen Youth Experience, a non-profit that brings inner city youth to the mountains of Colorado, I would photograph their annual event in Marble. They taught the youth how to overcome personal roadblocks by overcoming their fears. They set up a “ropes course” all around Lizard Lake. It consists of rappelling, The Superman, Spider Web, and other trust building techniques. Wonderful people.

So I thought the Tour de Cure would be fun to shoot and help out at the same time. I signed up to photograph the ADA’s fund-raising event at the Seattle Photography Group on MeetUp.com.

It seemed to be well-organized as they had two meeting this past week to discuss photographer’s positioning during the race. The organizer updated the posting to allow photographers to download a contract we are to sign before being allowed to photograph it.

I began reading the contract and it started sounding as if I was to be totally controlled by the organizers.  I was to be told where, when, what, and how to shoot. But that’s not the problem. I’ve worked with those situations before and I’ve learned to nod my head “yes,” and just shoot what I wanted.

The kicker that really made me sick is this part in the contract that reads:

Work for Hire. Volunteer agrees that, for consideration that is acknowledged herein, any works of authorship commissioned or performed pursuant to this Agreement (the “Works”) shall be considered works made for hire as that term is defined under U.S. copyright law. To the extent that any such Work created for the Association by Volunteer is not a work made for hire belonging to Association, Volunteer hereby assigns and transfers to the Association all rights Volunteer has or may acquire to all such Works. Volunteer agrees to sign and deliver to the Association, either during or subsequent to the term of this Agreement, such other documents as Association considers desirable to evidence the assignment of copyright. Volunteer shall have the limited license to use the Works for Volunteer’s purposes to as specimens of his talents, subject to ADA prior review and written approval of such use. Such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld.

How do they expect to get good photographers to volunteer their time when they want us to sign over our copyright?

You ask photographers to volunteer their professional services, their time, their efforts, and have them give you their copyright? It’s tough enough trying to keep control of what is a photographer’s most valuable commodity, other than their creativity, under control.

We photogs have enough to worry about without having to worry about non-profits wanting our copyright in return for volunteering.

Let take a closer look at the above paragraph:

A.    “Volunteer agrees that, for consideration that is acknowledged herein, any works of authorship commissioned or performed pursuant to this Agreement (the “Works”) shall be considered works made for hire as that term is defined under U.S. copyright law.”

Aren’t we volunteering? How can you say we are “work for hire” when we are not getting paid? What is the compensation we are getting? I really hope you can prove, in a court of law, that you gave us fair compensation for our hard physical work resulting in creative images which you will use. One of the first paragraphs of the contract reads they are not responsible for an injury you receive while “work for hire?” I really hope they are not thinking that a credit/byline is fair compensation.

How is it that the ADA can treat volunteers this way? How do they expect to retain the trust of volunteers when you strip them of their copyrights? I seriously believe the ADA needs to rethink this approach.

B.   “To the extent that any such Work created for the Association by Volunteer is not a work made for hire belonging to Association, Volunteer hereby assigns and transfers to the Association all rights Volunteer has or may acquire to all such Works.” I’m volunteering, and you want me to give ALL my rights away to my images without payment?

So you expect me to spend my own time, my own gas, use my own resources, and most importantly, my own creativity, then freely GIVE you ALL the rights to those photographs?

You truly can not expect anyone worth their salt behind a camera to volunteer under these circumstances.

C. “Volunteer agrees to sign and deliver to the Association, either during or subsequent to the term of this Agreement, such other documents as Association considers desirable to evidence the assignment of copyright.”

Not only does the ADA want you to give them copyright, they also want you to give them proof you’re signing over the rights. It’s a little ridiculous to expect photographers just to hand over one of their biggest assets.

D. “Volunteer shall have the limited license to use the Works for Volunteer’s purposes to as specimens of his talents, subject to ADA prior review and written approval of such use. Such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld.”

Limited license? So, I can use it in my portfolio (“specimens of his talents”), but I need to ask permission to post it in multiple places on the internet? What about making prints for display or even for sale? What if I give one to a friend who is competing in your event? They’ll already have the copyright so selling it would be a violation of that copyright.

And I believe  any approval for use will be “unreasonably withheld.”  I have doubts that the ADA will approve you selling a photo essay to Sports Illustrated or Seattle Magazine. Afterall, without you having the copyright to the image, you can not sell it and you yourself will be in violation of copyright law.

I do not believe they will allow you to sell your images on SmugMug. I honestly think, the ADA is using this contract so they have total control over the images they receive from volunteers. I honestly believe they are being outright cheap, and I believe they it is an underhanded attempt to get some great and creative images.

This is one prime example where the photographer MUST read the contract before signing. Any questions about the conditions of the contract should be ironed out before the photographer puts their “John Hancock” down. If you don’t like the terms of the contract, back out before signing.

Now you may be asking: “With the advice you gave above, why not try that before posting on your blog?”  Simple. I believe it is our right to inform other photographers and creative professionals of dubious and unfair contracts such as this.

Our copyright is the only thing we have of any value. You can lose all your gear, but by continuing to own the copyright, you can keep an income stream.

We as photographers need begin saying NO to rights grabbers. We need to stand collectively and not accept low paying assignments, submit our work to unreasonable agencies, nor work for rights grabbing companies.

We need to be tenacious about keeping better control of our images, but most important, our copyright, and be proactive in the legal process by talking with our Representatives and Senators. We need to stand firm and accept nothing less.

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8 comments

  1. Sounds like the volunteer lawyer got onboard before the volunteer photographer ;)

    Photogs do need to read, and understand what is being signed and the implications. Maybe the group got screwed by a photographer who started sending invoices after some pictures from a past event were published. Maybe the group had a knee-jerk reaction and went full-tilt WFH? A discussion definitely needs to be had with the organizers to get at least a shared copyright and and some of those other grafs stricken.

    Clear and comprehensive contracts are needed to protect both parties.

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  2. I’ve been trying to call and talk to them. I really like volunteering, but, to have to hand over my copyright is just wrong.

    I understand the need for a liability waiver, but to have them call you “Work for Hire,” and then ask for documentation for transfer of copyright is just plain wrong. How can it be “work for hire” if they are not compensating you in any way?

    Photographers do need to read all contracts, whether for a contest or for work.

    Someone said to me that because of the internet, the copyright of a photo has lost tremendous value. I totally disagree. In fact, you should value your copyright and protect it even more.

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  3. Photographers are indeed fighting this kind of nonsense. I believe you have Editorial Photographers US, who might be a good starting point to find out who is campaigning against this kind of grabby contract.

    You can also contact the organisers and explain to them the stink of publicity you’ll happily create if they don’t remove the offending clauses. Works a treat here in the UK with many copyright-grabbing photo competitions having their T&Cs changed after pressure was applied in all the right places ;)

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  4. Some of the contracts I’ve been reading have outright angered me. It seems there are a lot of contests, contracts, and organizations in general that are using every attempt to get free photographs and the copyright of the image.

    I say to each photographer that wants to enter a contest, read any contracts or conditions to enter to ensure you retain your copyright.

    Afterall, what good is shooting a fantastic image when you just give away the copyright unknowingly.

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