Copyright Rant

Those of you who follow this blog from my personal FB my recognise the quote that I am about to post in 2picsaweek today.

“I personally think giving credit is the right thing to do. However, I have an issue with people who put their watermarks in obtrusive places.”

The issue of “giving credit” set off a bit of a rant for me. I have to explain that the statement in the quote was made in context of non-photography related blogging, and my now following rant was a direct reaction to the fact that countless bloggers were re-posting images from which they had painstakingly removed the prominently placed watermarks. I am aware that I am preaching to the converted here on this platform – most of my readers are probably involved in or at least sensitised towards issues of photography, anyway. You are about to read a plea for respecting copyright and for the reasons why it is not just a matter of fairness to credit and pay for the use of images. If only one new reader finds something new in this, I am vindicated in having climbed onto my soapbox.

Watermarks of a different kind

Those of you who are familiar with this blog may have noticed that I only ever use my own images as illustration for my posts. The reason for that is not me being overly confident of my work or using 2picsaweek as an exclusive platform for showing my own stuff. It is merely a reaction to copyright rules that force me to do so. Occasionally, that becomes awkward in the context of 2picsaweek, for instance, when I am reviewing an exhibition and I illustrate the post with a picture of my own, and not from the show in question. For me, that is the easiest way of avoiding copyright issues – although, I could probably get permission from the exhibition organisers in question to re-post an image – after all, it appears in promo material on other sites and publications, too. Strictly speaking, however, I may not use someone else’s image in any public forum without prior permission of the copyright holder. Legal particularities vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general a photograph belongs to the creator for ever and may not be republished without permission. That does not mean that you always have to pay for the use of an image, but considering that photographers make their money with images, using a photograph without permission is equal to theft.

This is the case in particular when looking at the work of press photographers. They tend to be freelancers who only make money if they not only *get* the shot but also *get it out* fast. However glamourous this profession may seem to you – seeing celebrities up close, attending media events, getting free entry into openings etc. – it is a very hard job, both physically and mentally, in a very competitive market. You have to be a fast worker with enough instinct to know where to catch the celebs. You need to be well-connected to be at the important events. You have to be technically more than proficient to produce relevant images under pressure, in confined space, within a short time-span. You have to have use of the appropriate equipment for making the picture and for sending it on asap. You also have to have the ability to engage with your subjects so that *they* engage with your camera. This is a highly-skilled, fast-paced, multi-tasking job. And it does not pay particularly well. You’ve got to love what you do in order to endure the waiting, the late nights, the scrum in the press pit, the rejection, the uncertainty of your monthly income.

All too often I hear people saying things along the lines of “ah sure, they are just pressing a button, *anyone* could do that”. Wrong. There is much more to press photography than simply releasing the shutter. And the fact that occasionally an amateur gets lucky with a coincidentally snapped image that makes the front pages is merely an exception that proves the rule. In order to *consistently* produce useable press images you need much more than fluke (see above). The industry is notoriously secretive about its prices. They generally depend on which size of image you need and what the circulation of your publication is. But consider the expenses that the photographer has for making that image:

  • Photography is an equipment-based profession. To produce images that reach industry-standard requirements, photographers have to invest in cameras that cost from € 3500/$ 4000 *upwards*! And this is not a once-off but a regularly recurring expense as the camera hardware needs to be updated on a regular basis!
  • Camera accessories are effing expensive but indispensable: A camera flash will set you back from € 500/$ 550 upwards. Studio equipment is even more expensive. You need strobes, reflectors, softboxes, shades, tripods, stands, backdrops…
  • You have to invest in insurance to keep your working tools safe and to protect yourself from damages you may incur while on your job. This will cost you several hundred Dollars/Euro per year.
  • Stationary hardware: Part of the photographic package is the production of a carefully edited and post-produced final image of a shoot. You have to have the appropriate computer hardware (exclusive Apple Mac being the machine of choice in the graphic professions;  starting from € 1000/$1300) and software (Adobe Photoshop – full version costs in the region of €700/$800). Security software and storage facilities (whether in-cloud or hardware-based) also add to the cost.
  • Transport cost: Particularly as a press photographer you are travelling to “where it’s at”. This could be just a walk down the block – but it might be a plane-ride away.
  • And all that before we talk about the educational investment in photography. A degree in photography will set you back from €15.000/$18.000 for tuition. The experience gleaned in the field is not quantifiable but certainly should also be remunerable. As is the actual time that a photographer spends on the assignment – after all, you would also pay a plumber by the hour…

Do you see how it all adds up? You have to sell many, many pictures at €50 each in order to make ends meet at the end of the month… And it applies just as much to portrait photographers, stock photographers, or fine art photographers. All of them have made the above investments in their work. To not acknowledge that is to cheat them. Thus, I am advocating the fair use of photography in digital media. A photograph is the product of an individual’s hard labour. You may use it for your own enjoyment for free, after all it is visible online or in a magazine, but if you are using it to make money with it, you need permission to use it, and you should pay for it.

Having said all that – by and large the photographs that I see posted on blogs every day are not used to make money. They are used for the entertainment of the readers, or for illustration purposes. It can be argued that they will spread the photographer’s name. But that is only the case if the photographer is credited. So wherever possible, as an act of fairness, credit should be given to the creator of any image. I am not advocating that that is *all* you need to do. Asking for permission should be the starting point. And considering to pay for the use of an image should be considered standard practice. But crediting is the least we can do to acknowledge the hard work and the monetary investment that has been put into images.

Rant over.

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