Professional licensing: what you need to know

Protecting and monetising creative work are the cornerstones of every photographer's career. Original photographic images cannot simply be reproduced without permission. A licence from the owner must be granted, usually in return for financial compensation.

Licensing sounds like a daunting prospect, but it's simpler than it sounds, provided you consider a few things before jumping in. We asked Fairfax Media's head of syndication, Bernie Callan, to offer some wisdom to budding photographers. Please note this is intended to assist you in monetising your original work and is not legal advice.

Fairfax Media's head of syndication, Bernie Callan. <cite>Photo: Sahlan Hayes</cite>
Fairfax Media's head of syndication, Bernie Callan. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Copyright laws

As the person who took the photograph you own the copyright in that photograph unless (i) you were paid to take the photograph for private or domestic purposes (such as a wedding or family portrait); or (ii) you are an employee photographer.

<cite>Photo: Peter Rae/Fairfax Media</cite>
Photo: Peter Rae/Fairfax Media

Copyright law in Australia protects your copyright without formal process, meaning you hold the exclusive rights to use, reproduce, distribute and modify your work unless you license these rights to a third party.

Licensing your work for use can be an informal process, but Callan recommends putting as much detail as possible in writing. The first step is to decide on the details of the licence: whether the license will be for a single organisation or for multiple licensees (exclusivity), how long the licence will last (duration or term), what specific rights you are granting (online, print reproduction, etc) and any geographic restrictions you wish to impose..

Moral rights subsist in photographs and are recognised under Australian law.  These include the right to be attributed as the author of the photograph and the right not to have the photograph exhibited or distorted in a way that prejudices the author's honour or reputation.  It is normal in a licence to expressly retain your moral rights and to outline how you want to be attributed as the author of the photograph.

"Ensure you are clear on what you are proposing," Callan advises.

Finding a licensee

Before licensing images a photographer must first find a willing buyer. Approaching news organisations is one option, but not always the most effective. Callan's first piece of advice is to look for work similar to yours and find out how it is being sold.

In Callan's experience many niche photographers can successfully promote themselves online. "A lot of amateur photographers who specialise, for example, in a particular field such as surfing or the beach ... [create] their own photographing website where they can sell their prints."

Approaching image stock sites such as Getty is another effective gateway for monetising photographs "if you have a lot of generic images you think are good enough to get some money from". Stock sites also provide an opportunity for commission or royalty gains.

Pricing the licence

A reasonable price for a licence will depend on the nature of the agreement. "Exclusives will of course mean you can charge more for the content," Callan says, "but you may make more revenue by keeping the licence non-exclusive (i.e. licensing multiple organisations) as this keeps the audience larger."

When it comes to selling the rights to use photographs to news outlets, Callan warns photographers to manage their expectations. "We [Fairfax] have people contacting us wanting thousands of dollars for an image," he says. But unless the image is truly unique, it is unlikely that a news outlet will shell out hundreds of dollars to use it.

In addition, rights holders may be asked to surrender or transfer their copyright entirely. Photographers will often attempt to sell a photo for a single use only, but from Callan's perspective buyers will want to own it and retain the freedom to do more with the image. However, Callan advises photographers to "avoid perpetual licensing and instead offer time periods by months or years". In addition, a surrender or transfer of copyright (i.e. an assignment of copyright) is a complete transfer of rights in the photograph and this should only be agreed if the right price is negotiated.

Sealing the deal

Once you have agreed on the commercial details, including the price and the other dimensions of the licence, you will need to document these details in an agreement between yourself and the licensee.  A written, signed document is the best way to do this.  If that is not possible, it is best to outline these terms in an email and  obtain confirmation back from the licensee with billing information.

For more examples of types of licensing, visit Fairfax's commercial photographic licensing website.