An Introduction to Licencing Photography.


Image licencing is the term used within the photography industry to describe how images or footage are allowed to be used by a client. In almost all commercial image use, the client has agreed to the terms set out by an image licence which defines how they are allowed to use that image. It's important to note that a licence does not give a client any ownership to the image, only the right to use the image as per the terms of the licence agreement. The copyright ownership always stays with the photographer or entity that created the work. (Unless the copyright owner agrees to assign the copyright to another party in which case the ownership to that copyright becomes someone else other than the creator of the work.)
Before an image (or piece of stock-footage) is made available for licencing, a licence type is decided by the copyright owner, under the terms of which the owner agrees to make available that image to clients and once selected it's shouldn't be changed.

All stock library sales rely on image licencing to sell the use of their images. A client pays a fee to buy the right to use the work and the copyright owner receives a payment when their work is licenced. This is called a royalty.

One licence type allows the free use of the work and these are called Creative Commons, or CC licences.

In this article we will go in to the detail of licencing and how it works for you and the people who want to use your work. There are three types of licence, royalty-free (RF), rights-managed (RM) and Creative Commons (CC). The detail set out in any licence can differ depending on who has written them so we can only describe the licence types in general terms however this will give you a very good idea as to the concepts behind the different licence models. So lets start with the RF licence.

Royalty-Free (RF)

It is generally accepted that a royalty-free licence means that once the client has purchased the RF licence you pay no further fee to use the image so long as you use it within the terms of the licence. As you might imagine this is a very attractive proposition to a client. As long as they keep within the terms of the licence they can use it for as long as they like, where they like, when they like. RF images are probably the most popular licenced works and available at very low prices. There are millions of RF images available produced by thousands of photographers throughout the World.

Sometimes a licence might contain a clause that states the image can only be used for a certain amount of time, 5 years for instance, or that it can't be used for advertising. However if the client wishes to use the image beyond the terms of the licence, it is likely that by purchasing an additional licence extended terms can be made available to the client.

Because the terms of an RF licence are known beforehand it makes it very easy to set a fee for the purchase of that licence therefore little or no negotiation is neccessary before the client can make use of the work. When a client browses a stock site for an RF image most will show the cost of the licence as it's already known. Once the terms of the licence are understood it becomes easy for a client to get hold of an image and start to use it quickly.

Rights-Managed (RM)

An RM licence can mean that the client decides for how long they wish to use the image, on what media, print, web, magazine, front page, back page, inside, etc, size of distribution and for how long before a fee can be calculated for the cost of the RM licence. Once the fee is paid the client can only use the image in those agreed formats for the agreed amount of time. After which another licence would have to be purchased. On occasion the client will negotiate the reuse licence at the time original licence is agreed thus saving time later should they wish to use the image again. The costs involved do depend on who is offering the licence. Some stock agents even offer a pre-defined fee in a similar way to RF so these markets are evolving constantly. Historically RM has been work intensive before a sale is agreed so there are moves by some companies to make RM licencing easier for the client in order to increase sales. When compared to an RF licence, work to be done before the client can make use of the image.

Creative Commons (CC)

When an image is used under the terms of a creative commons licence, it is recognised that the work has a copyright owner and the owner has agreed that the work can be distributed for free for non-commercial use whilst under the terms of the CC licence. There are variants of the licence and these can become quite complex. Some stipulate that the work can't be changed or that the copyright holder must be credited with the creation of the work when that image is used. Wikipedia® give a great explanation of how CC licences can work and here's a link to their page.
It's worth nothing that a CC licence is unlikely to earn you any money but as a valid licence type you need to be aware of it's existence and how they work. It may be useful to offer images under a CC licence in order to get your work used and give you some publicity. Don't assume that because it doesn't earn you cash that it doesn't have any benefit.

Why Choose One Licence Over Another?

As a photographer you are faced with a decision about which licence should be applied to your work before you make it available. I start by asking myself a few questions. Is it a stock image? Does it contain any people? Is there property in the image? Do I have model and property releases? Does it have the look of an RF image? How you answer these questions will determine the best licence route for that work. A critical decider for me is if the image features people. If those people have not signed a model release then I would only consider an RM licence. The same rule applies to property or intellectual property like trademarks and logos. If there is any physical or intellectual property in the image for which I do not have a signed release then it's RM only. I only consider an image for RF if the people featured in it have agreed and signed a release. This is because there is more control over how an RM image is used. RF images aren't controlled at all so as the photographer you could be exposed to legal action from anyone featured in your image should that image be used in a way that leaves those featured in a bad light. Again the same issues apply with property. There are certain buildings, products, trademarks and even trees that their owners have specified cannot be used in RF imagery. If you submit to a stock library, it probably includes a page listing things that can't be photographed and sold as RF images so these lists should be referenced before you decide what you are going to photograph and submit.

Of course you can have model or property releases and yet still decide to make it an RM image. This is because the image has a value above what might be defined as an average image. An image that falls in to this category might be if you had a picture of a plant that only flowers every one hundred years and pictures of the flower are as rare as the subject. It is therefore likely that the income from that picture could be quite healthy as there will be demand for the shot. Of course it would also sell as an RF image but the rarity of the image wouldn't be considered if it's available from a library as an RF image, it's just one of millions of RF images. However it's rarity value is more likely to be a consideration especially if it's hosted by a specialist plant library who appreciate how rare that picture is and the value of that rarity.

The look of an image is perhaps harder to explain than the other considerations as 'look' is quite subjective. Taking the picture of the coins here as an example, it has the look of a typical stock photograph, white background, isolated subject close up featuring a conceptual item, coins. Should a buyer be looking to licence an image of coins or money they would probably start with RF imagery as there are many pictures of coins already available and many are RF. So if your image has the look and feel of RF, it's more likely to make a sale as an RF image because there is little reason for a client to buy an RM licence for an image like this. I would only consider an RM licence if the coins were rare, there is a restriction on RF images for the coins or something about the picture made it unusual and there's few alternative images available elsewhere.
Whilst on the subject of money, currency is also subject to rules about how it can be photographed. Certainly straights shots of bank notes are not allowed so you should be creative with your angles to avoid reproducing the coins and notes in this way. Stock agent guidelines will probably reflect this advice too. It's wise to be aware of what you photograph and consider who may have a legal interest in the thing you photograph. All important contributing criteria to the licence decision. I have the coin image on sale as RM because the shot features British coins and there are some restrictions on pictures of UK currency. I prefer to err on the side of caution!

When Do I Decide Which Licence to Use?

For stock photography, the time to decide is before you submit to the library because there might be some who are better suited to the image or images you wish to offer for licencing. If the image is typical RF like our picture of lovely panettone bread then it's destined for any agent that takes RF. There's little to be gained from selling that as RM.

Here we have a picture of Brighton pier in the UK and this is a typical RM image because it contains property for which no property release is available. So it has been submitted only to agents that allow for RM imagery.
Once you decide where you are sending the picture selecting the licence type is part of the upload process. Note though that you can't change it after submission and you would probably have to delete the uploaded image and reload if you did want to change the licence type. It's bad practice to submit the same image to different agents and assign different licence types. It is advised that you use the same licence type for an image at all outlets.

What About Commercial Photography Clients?

If you are shooting for a client then you will have agreed before the shoot under what licence terms your images will be made available to them. It is up to the photographer to decide how they would like to offer their work. Many assign an RM licence as standard and agree how the client may use their work as part of the licence. If the client wants to use the work after the terms of the first licence have expired then it's likely the client will negotiate a further licence for additional use.

The concept of licencing can be quite confusing especially to someone new to buying a photography licence and the rights of copyright ownership. Many commercial photographers will have stories about how some customers have expectations of how they can use an image assuming that because they have paid the photographer to shoot it, they can then do what they like with it. This lack of understanding has lead to the Association of Photographers (AOP), a leading group representing many UK photographers, to put together a page that answers some of these points in this FAQ Unless you decide to reassign ownership, the copyright always belongs to the photographer and the choice of what they do with their work rests with them. It is wise to ensure this is made clear to clients before you start a commission.

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