Negotiating a copyright buyout for your photos
Has a client ever told you they want to own the copyright to the photographs you’re shooting for them? And then you weren’t sure what to do?
This can be a stressful situation, but it doesn’t have to be. Be open and talk with your client, understand their concerns and then negotiate an outcome that works for both of you—or walk away, if you wish (I’ve both negotiated and walked away before).
More details on all that in a moment. But first, a very brief overview of copyright.
A little background about copyright
In the United States, when you make a photograph, create a painting, write a song, or do anything creative or literary, you automatically own the copyright to that work.
It doesn’t matter if someone has hired you to shoot those photos, create that painting or write that song. You own the copyright. This means you alone have the right to reproduce your work, make and sell copies of your work and exhibit your work. If you sign a contract in which you agree that another person or organization owns the copyright to your work, then you usually lose all those rights—and all the potential revenue and career opportunities that come with those rights.
As a freelance photographer, you will sometimes find yourself in a situation where a client wants to own the photo copyright—meaning the client wants you to transfer your copyright to them. You should definitely be compensated for that.
Discussing copyright and money with your client
It’s completely understandable if your stomach churns and your heart races when your client says they want a copyright buyout. You want this job. You’re excited about this job. And now there’s what feels like an obstacle that could throw everything off: a negotiation about copyright and money. But no need to get defensive or overly worried. Just be prepared.
• Know where you stand on copyright buyouts as they pertain to your business. This happens before a client ever brings up a buyout with you. Are there any situations in which you’re willing to transfer your copyright to a client? What are those circumstances? How much is your copyright worth to you aka how much more would you charge for a client to buy your copyright? What alternatives to a copyright buyout are you willing to offer your client?
• Talk with your clients about why they want to own the copyright. Sometimes clients really don’t know why; it’s just what they’ve heard from someone else. They may not understand why copyright ownership is important to a freelance photographer. This is your opportunity job to educate your clients about copyright and help them articulate why they truly need to own the copyright.
Sometimes clients want copyright ownership because of privacy reasons. Perhaps the people you’re photographing are particularly vulnerable, like young children or people living with mental health issues. Or maybe your client is generally worried about how you’ll use the photos.
Sometimes clients want copyright ownership because a person you’re photographing is well-known or high up in an organization and the organization wants complete control over the pictures.
Whatever it is, find out your client’s reason for wanting your copyright, listen and address their needs and concerns.
• Once you know why the client wants to own the copyright, offer them alternatives or negotiate the cost of the buyout.
Maybe the client needs reassurance that you won’t resell photos on a stock website. If you’re OK with that, all you need to do is amend your contract. Or maybe the client is fine with you reselling or exhibiting photos however you like and just needs a multi-year photo licensing deal, where the client pays a certain amount to license all the images for three to five years. Or maybe the client wants to license a certain number of images and buy the copyright to a certain number of other images. Or maybe you and the client agree to co-own the copyright with certain conditions. There are so many ways to negotiate an outcome that works for both you and the client. It’s up to you to research and decide what you’re comfortable with in your business.
• If a client really wants a copyright buyout, tell them what you will charge for it. This has only happened to me a couple times because I don’t like giving up the copyright to my photos.
One of the times I sold my copyright to a client, it was under quite strict conditions. I couldn’t use any of the pictures for anything. I couldn’t use even one photograph to market myself on my website or on social media. And I couldn’t name the client on my website. That was a really big deal for me because this client was and still is a respected, world-renowned nonprofit.
When this client told me they needed to own the copyright to the photos I shot for them, I understood their reasoning (privacy and photographing a sensitive issue), I charged the client two times my daily photography rate. I also doubled my rate for photo editing and captioning.
At the time, the rate I charged for selling my copyright was worth it to me. Now I look back and think I should have charged more, maybe even three times my daily rate. But I did what I felt was right at the time and I felt good about it.
• Walk away from the job if the client isn’t willing to negotiate or pay you what you know you deserve. Years ago, a potential client wanted all the rights to the photographs I would shot for them. I told them from the start that I was willing to do so for double my usual shooting rate. They told me absolutely no. And yet, this potential client kept trying to get me to work with them. I don’t know why. I didn’t photograph for them—and I don’t regret that.
Has a client ever asked you for a copyright buyout? How did you respond? Feel free to share your story in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.