Licensing your photography works – The basics explained

Protecting one’s work online has been a herculean task. In times like these, owning the copyright alone won’t help you against illegal downloads. However, licensing your images definitely would, as it forms the core of a sound business practice in photography.

In fact, licensing is one way to earn money as photographer. What you do here is that you sell someone the permission to use your work in a certain way in return for some monetary benefits. A license is a contract in which the photographer grants specific rights to the client who wants to use your image(s) for a stipulated amount of time. The client is free to use the images in any way that doesn’t go beyond the scope of the agreement. Sounds simple, right?

While there are legalities associated with it, it isn’t rocket science. Make a contract, grant the client the rights to use your images and once the contract ends, the client can no more use your images. The flip-side, however is that this rarely happens. In most cases, the moment the client receives the images, everything spirals out of control.

What is a License?

As the photographer, you own the rights to your images. You can decide to license specific usage rights to a client that wants to use your photographs through a contract. The license allows the client to use images within the scope of the usage agreement only.

Licensing doesn’t mean you have to pass a written exam while watched over by cranky, bespectacled government workers. It simply means that you’re giving rights to someone?—?preferably someone who gives you money in return?—?to use your work for a certain purpose and for a specific period of time. Different types of licensing can be broken into the following categories:

Commercial Rights

Commercial rights enable the buyer to use your images for commercial purposes?—?in communications designed to sell their own products or services such as a catalog, brochure or on some other form of advertisement.

Non-Commercial Rights

Things like personal websites, blogs, school newsletters and other media where your image will not be used specifically as a part of a for-profit / money-making activity come under Non-Commercial rights.

Exclusive Rights

Also known as Serial Rights, this is when you grant an exclusive permission to use a specific image to a client. You may or may not want to do this, since “exclusive” means you will not be able to resell that image to any other at a later time.

First Rights

First rights constitute the permission to use the image first off and then you are free to resell your image at a later time. This typically applies to publications, newspapers, and magazines.

Non-Exclusive Rights

Non-exclusive rights mean that you can sell your images to more than one person or entity. Make sure that you include a clause wherein your client cannot further resell your images.

One Time Use

One time use is probably the best way to go in terms of licensing from the photographer’s perspective. This license agreement lets you sell the right to use your image one time only, for one specific purpose to a client.

Rights Managed

“Rights managed,” is a little more complicated but is probably the best way for photographers to license their images. Most stock photo websites use this model, wherein images have very specific restrictions on use and different fees associated with each use. Rights Manages Images enable both the photographer and the client to arrive that the best fit of usage and exclusivity and do a license agreement based on the same.

Creative Commons

If you are looking to gain exposure or simply contribute your images so that anyone can use them, Creative Commons licences let you define the level of access you give others to use your photos. A lot of photographers use Creative Commons as a marketing strategy to bring exposure to their work through platforms like Flickr, Unsplash etc as it lets your images be seen by a wide audience.

Putting together a Licensing Agreement

Coming to the whole licensing process, it begins with you sending the client its description so that the negotiation process can begin.

A license description is primarily used for three things:

  1. Making an offer to grant the client agreed-upon scope of usage of the images. Permitting him only specified usage of the images and constraining others.
  2. Stating what the client can do and can’t do with the images.
  3. Protecting your images from unlicensed usage.

In most cases the client is never satisfied with how much you are initially willing to offer. They’ll try to get more rights to the image, to use the image for various undisclosed purposes. You on your part should be all ears and open to changes.

While you are working on the license description, be specific, choose the right words and don’t play with the punctuation?—?a wrongly-placed comma can cost you a lot!

An ideal license description must contain the following:

  • Parties—When describing the license, make sure to establish the names of the parties involved?—?the licensor, licensee and the End User (the party that will ultimately use the image).
  • Permissions—The license grants permission to the client for specified use of the image, like what category/type of media to use the image on, the distribution format, placement, quantity, size, duration, region, language, and exclusivity.
  • Constraint—A permission can also be used as a constraint. The license start and end date is one constraint, that allows your client to use your image in a particular duration only and once the license is over the client would have to pay you an additional licensing fee in order to use your image. If applicable, you can also put media, region or product/service constraints on your image.
  • Requirements—This includes all those things that do not fall under either permissions or constraints. These can be anything such as inserting a photo credit line with your image.
  • Terms & Conditions—These can be additional terms and conditions which include payment and other transactional details.
  • Image Information—Description of the image(s) associated with the license is one thing that you shouldn’t skip from the license description. The license description must define the quantity of images that may be used under the license.

In conclusion:

As a professional photographer, building profitable, recurring income streams based on your work is incredibly important and Licensing your work lets you achieve that. Figuring out how to license your images doesn’t have to be overwhelming as there are plenty of resources available online that would help you navigate your way through the myriad of business, legal, and artistic considerations involved in licensing.

5 Comments
  1. I have always been interested in photography and find it very fun. My mother says I’m very creative and I would be a good photographer, but I still need help and tips, so thank you. So i am always protected.

  2. Thank you for a great article. I do many catalog shoots for e-commerce
    websites and clothing wholesalers. I am having a small issue with a
    clothing wholesaler that I shoot for about once a month. We shoot
    dresses and swimwear. We usually do small 2 hour shoots with two
    models. The store never brings their own model releases and so I’ve used
    mine but for some of the other shoots we’ve been pressed for time
    because the models showed up late, etc. To make matters worst this
    client always wants everything cheap, cheap, cheap, and wants the
    pictures yesterday! This I can handle.
    Now my problem, we’ve been
    working together for over a year with no licensing agreement of the images. I don’t
    even think they know what one is. My photos have basically been
    going on their wholesale website. Now I just found out that this client
    has been giving, loaning, or selling (I don’t know which) my photos to his retail clothing clients to
    use on their websites when he sells to them. I’m seeing my photos on a
    retail site that is connected to a Hollywood tv show and it is making
    LOTS of money. In fact things are selling out faster that they can stock
    them because of my photos. On one hand I’ve cut my rate to the bone to keep this wholesale
    client now they just acquired this new Hollywood retail client and now
    things are looking up, for them anyway. At first I was happy because the wholesaler
    said business is good and he would need my services more. Now I having
    my doubts, am I missing out on some additional money? I mean, this other store
    is using my photos, selling a ton of garments and no money is coming
    back to me.
    I wrote a friendly email to this Hollywood retail client
    saying that I’m glad they like my work and if they ever need any
    garments shot I’d be more than happy to work for them. They can just
    contact me direct. No response. They just ignored me. That made me mad.
    After all, they are getting my work for free. Should I rock the boat
    and bring up the licensing issue and possibly lose my connections with
    both?
    I’m still fairly new to shooting for clothing wholesalers. I’ve been a glamor photographer for the last 15 years. I don’t know if wholesalers normally give photos they’ve shot for their own websites to their retail buyers. In the fashion world there is much thievery between
    wholesalers and retail websites stealing garment photos. Some websites
    will even crop the head off the model so you can only see the garment.
    Anyway, I’m still working cheap just to keep this wholesale client
    relationship going but seeing my photos on another website that I didn’t
    even get paid to shoot for is bugging the Hell out of me. I don’t want to lose my
    steady wholesale client or an opportunity to gain a potentially bigger
    one with Hollywood connections. Any advice?

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