Understanding your rights is protecting your future

The economic foundation of our society is undergoing a seismic transformation. In the old industrial economy, the basis of wealth was natural resources. In the new information economy, information is wealth. Images are information and the information society will be a visually rich culture in which photography, video and film will be valuable components. Those who control imagery will profit from it. Controlling images means owning their copyright.

The majority of NPPA members are staff employees. By status of their employment, they have no rights to their images; the companies they work for own them. There is, however, a dramatic shift taking place. Increasingly, free-lance photojournalists, who, by virtue of their self-employed status, own the rights to the images they create, are populating the ranks of NPPA. The value of these rights should never be underestimated.

Copyright laws are the foundation for protecting the image rights for any photojournalist. These laws give individual photographers the same protection that any corporation has over its intellectual property assets. However, understanding copyright law is just a starting point. Understanding the laws and knowing how to benefit from them are different issues. Copyright laws give visual journalists the power to decide how their images can be licensed. Only after photojournalists have agreed to terms and fees can someone use their images.

Many photographers do not want to think that what they do is a business. Understandably, they want to spend their time creating images. Photography is an art, a craft, a visual quest for the truth-- and more. But free-lance photographers are also in business for themselves. Being in business requires making a profit, and profits come from understanding the costs associated with the business and knowing what to charge. Being able to charge enough to make a profit comes from owning the images that someone else wants to use. By negotiating a fair fee and carefully delineating rights, photojournalists grant a license to use their images and have those images to license again and again. For free-lance photojournalists, the "day rate" should only be the beginning of the income stream. A good assignment can produce images that generate income for years. Photojournalists who give up their rights, give up their future income.

Our Images Are Our Legacy is an excellent primer on copyright law. It points you in the right direction to understand your rights -- rights that are yours unless you voluntarily sign them away. I strongly encourage you to learn the basics of copyright law. It is the most powerful tool you have at your disposal. As visual communicators you have an important role in the information economy of the 21st century. Ironically, it is copyright law, which first took shape hundreds of years ago at the start of the industrial revolution, that will protect the future wealth of those willing to exercise their rights in the Information Age.

Alan Carey
The Image Works
NPPA Business Practices Committee chair
1999