How to Ensure You Keep the Rights to Your Photos

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It’s been the talk of the internet for the past couple of days: Taylor Swift telling Apple to pay artists for her work, photographers telling Taylor Swift to pay them for their work, Taylor Swift responding back. Indeed, it’s become very common for concert and music photographers to need to give up their rights in order to photograph musicians.

Amidst the growing problem, we talked to a handful of famous concert photographers about how to deal with problems like this.

They both sound like entitled brats, though I admit, I do have more sympathy for the photographer. You asked ‘How do photographers ensure that they keep the rights to the images despite limiting contracts becoming so commonplace?’ That’s easy. Don’t sign them. I got into music photography because I love the music and the images I could create from the experience. Through my career I’ve been able to make money working in the music photography space, either touring with artists or being compensated by the labels. That’s where music photographers make the good money. I have rarely, if ever, shot for big publications. If, say, Rolling Stone hired me to shoot a festival or a one-off on a major tour and I was confronted with an artist contract, I would have to bite my tongue, sign it and deliver the images. If I don’t, Rolling Stone doesn’t pay me and I’m further away from paying my rent.

If you don’t want to sign your rights away, DON’T SIGN YOUR RIGHTS AWAY. Here’s the thing music photographers–at least the purists, you’re not going to make a living shooting shows. There are a couple of friends of mine who do, but they started way before everyone and his mother had a camera and built relationships in the past 10 years with venues, artists, etc. There are plenty of wire service photographers who will sign these contracts because they shoot 4-5 shows a week, and WireImage or something similar works out deals with artists and publications. If you want to shoot Taylor Swift for your portfolio or small publications, go all out, but you almost certainly know what you’re getting into when you arrive in the venue.

Mike Lerner

I keep the rights to my work by not signing anything that takes them away. I’m generally fine with the standard release that says where you’re shooting from and for how long. If it goes any further down the “rights-grabbing” rabbit hole though (Swift, Foo Fighters, et.al.), I write “NO” in bold script across the release, hand it back to them, thank them kindly, and grab a sandwich someplace on my way home.

As for exactly when you should turn it down and say no, the correct answer is any time and every time they try to foist one of those nasty little rights-grabbers on you. If you’re shooting for a reputable outlet in the first place, that’s exactly what your outlet will want you to do, and they’ll back you 100%.

Timothy Hiatt

The whole “rights grab” situation is definitely a tricky one – it’s an incredibly complicated issue and I’ve wrestled with it myself in the past. What I’ll say is this: I think it’s terrible that any artist should feel the need to require this level of castration of photographers, but if they choose to do so, that’s their prerogative. As photographers we need to decide how badly we want to shoot those bands. I’ve shot many bands that require these types of contracts – Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails – I loved those bands and really wanted to see them, so I was open to signing away my rights. Do I regret it? Sure, a little bit, but having those experiences made up for it. These days I stay away from them – partially by distancing myself from the live music scene, and partially from the trust I’ve earned from some of the companies that would normally require signed releases. If photographers in general give up and just sign these releases, I think they’ll become more prevalent, but hopefully a mass of respected photographers turning down these types of contracts will force these bands and their management companies to reassess their strategy for dealing with the media.

Kyle Dean Reinford