Video, Work for Hire and Copyright

Many still photographers who are new to video, ask me; “A client is asking me to sign a “work for hire” contract – What do I do?” By law, a creator holds copyright to their work. imagesHowever, when signing a work for hire contract, a creator relinquishes ownership to their work, transferring it to the client who commissioned the work.

Professional still photographers are accustomed to maintaining ownership and copyright to their work and use a business model based on licensing their images and charging for usage. Video production is a collaborative effort and contracts are generated by whoever is commissioning the work and paying the bill. Most contracts are work for hire agreements between the client (executive producer) and all the players on the team, from the director of photography to the sound engineer to the gaffer (lighting). However, when I have worked direct to client and assumed the role of producer, I have been successful in amending contracts so that I maintain the rights to any unused b-roll – that is if the subject matter isn’t proprietary.

If you are working on self-initiated projects like a narrative film, a documentary or just shooting independent motion clips for stock, as the creator of the work you hold the copyright. It’s important that you register the copyright of your work. If you are registering independent video clips, you register them just as you would your still images, using the VA form. I license my motion clips, just as I do my still images.

If you are registering a movie/film, you are registering the “whole” and you have the rights to use the content that is contained within the film in the context of that “whole”. When registering a movie use the PA form.

One thing to remember; if you are a still photographer getting into video production, please respect others’ intellectual property rights. I see too many photographers using mainstream music in their videos and I know they didn’t license the rights to that music because it would have been cost prohibitive. If I can’t afford to license mainstream music for my compilations, I either use royalty free music or I commission someone to create the score.

Here’s more information about copyright for motion and video as well as information about fair use:

Copyright Registration for Motion Pictures Including Video Recordings

Gail is President of the National Board of ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers)


Copyright, Contracts and the Independent Photographer

Most photographers hold copyright sacred.  By law, (in the United States) a photographer holds the copyright to his or her work, unless they transfer it to another person, company, institution or organization.  Generally, this happens in a “work for hire” situation.  But it appears that this is becoming more and more the standard in contracts between photographers and the clients who are commissioning them.

This is happening more frequently in editorial markets, where magazines see the added value of the photographs that they commission, beyond their original usage and want to keep that additional revenue, rather than relinquish it to the photographer.  Many publications have partnered with stock agencies for the purpose of “reselling” the images.  Historically, photographers would benefit from relicensing their photographs when shooting for publications. Editorial assignments paid much lower rates than commercial commissions so in return a photographer would receive a credit and in most cases could make additional money by relicensing their images for other uses.  That is quickly changing.

Photographers have been so narrowly focused on just holding on to their copyright, they haven’t been paying much attention to the details in the contracts. Some contracts being offered, transfer the photographer’s copyright to the magazine and in turn offer the photographer a small percentage of any future commissions made from the “resale” of their images, but this of course is a percentage of the magazine’s commission after the stock agency takes their cut.  A lot of photographers think that’s better than not getting anything at all.  But is it?

What’s most alarming in some of the recent contracts that I have seen, is a clause that states that the photographer will hold the magazine harmless if there should be any legal consequences resulting from their images.  So, contractually, even though a photographer no longer holds the copyright to the images they were commissioned to create, nor maintains any control over how those images are used (by the magazine or the stock agency) they are liable if there are legal consequences.

The devil is in the details.  Read the contracts. Do the math and ask yourself if you’ll still be in business in 5 years.  As for me, I see new opportunities beyond commissioned work and one of the many rewards is that I will hold the copyright to the images (still or motion) that I create.

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