Protecting Photographer Rights…Integrity Starts with You

Protecting your intellectual property as a photographer is one of the most important aspects of maintaining a successful business. 

A recent mis-guided request for an image I shot years ago got me thinking about our individual roles as photographers out from behind the lens, not only for self-preservation, but for the good of all our compatriots, competitors and counterparts across the globe.

You never know when prior work completed for a client might lead to another sale of a previously published image or request for new work. That’s why positive networking skills, an organized filing system and business-savvy approach to logging current and past uses of images are extremely important, of which the latter is far too often overlooked in a photo market overwhelmed with a micro-stock mentality defined by relatively anonymous image purchases.

But this particular post isn’t centered on tangible strategic approaches to successful photo business ownerships, rather, more toward the largely unseen and potentially un-noticed intangible expressions that we as creative media professionals must exhibit in order to maintain the integrity of our ways of life.

At its core, remembering the Golden Rule — treating others the way you’d like to be treated — is key to your own reputation and the overall maintenance of integrity in a profession wrought with IP infringement that often goes unseen to imagery creators.

A few years back while working as an editorial staff photographer, I covered an event that was just like any daily assignment at the time. One of the photos ended up on the cover and when I saw it, “cool, not bad,” ran through my head and I quickly forgot about the image. Editorial news photography — for all its merits — forces you to abruptly shift your focus to the next one and the next one and the next one, until you don’t remember where you were yesterday, which shots were great, which ones were published and so on.

None-the-less, I recently received one of those random  “I’m not sure if this is the right person, but…” type of emails requesting the aforementioned image for personal use.

Some out there might say, “what’s the big deal, some nice lady wants a likely forgotten shot of her husband doing something memorable in his life so she can frame it and give it to him for his birthday.”

But what if everyone thought that way, regardless of whether a person is making their living from photography. The whole system of being paid fairly (which is extremely questionable today anyway) would deteriorate even further.

Sure, she seemed nice enough and had no intention of profiting from the image, but that’s not the point. We as photographers — amateur, hobbyist or pro — are on the frontlines against IP infringement and if we approach IP ownership from a lackadaisical perspective, we’re only contributing to the corrosion of a system that certainly doesn’t need our help in doing so.

Let’s be realistic, anyone who’s shot long enough and exposed their imagery to the matrix can probably bet on having been IP infringed. It happened to me years ago when I was too young, dumb and mesmerized by my image being published to understand the financially negative consequences.

As for my reply to the nice lady, I kindly wrote that since I do not have the right to license the image in any way, for personal use or otherwise, that she should contact the newspaper or more specifically my former boss.

Don’t give me a medal or a cookie or a pat on the back…this is what everyone who does not own copyright to images should be doing. That is, searching for the owner if needs be or directing those seeking the imagery to the rightful owner. It’s not noble…it’s not extraordinary…it might be a bit commendable…but it should be the normal reaction from everyone.

Legality and normative ethics aside, isn’t it only fair to show appreciation and respect for the person/people who ‘gave me a shot to take shots’ years ago? The least they deserved was my honesty as a fellow media arts pro, let alone colleague and friend.

Interestingly this random email request also reinforced something I’ve tried to do in a positive, unpretentious way for years, which is educate the general public on proper business practices of photography.

In this instance, a woman who likely had no clue that  her request was violating ethical and legal boundaries established for decades now hopefully has a clearer understanding on the intricacies involved in photo licensing.

Did I lose money by turning down her request? Damn straight I did. Do I regret it one bit? Damn straight I don’t.

It’s up to you (and me) to look out for the interests of all photography professionals when it comes to IP ownership. There are enough unscrupulous, uneducated and unconcerned individuals that won’t think twice about swiping your intellectual property without us adding to the unethical/illegal behavior plaguing our profession.



About Alpine Objectives LLC

International mountain media, marketing & education services with more than 20 years of professional experience sliding around the wintry world.
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