The Art of Asking

A lot of people have asked me to write about copyright, and I’ve been planning to do it, but have been postponing it for quite some time now simply because I do not want to come across as the angry neighbor who shouts “get off my lawn” and waves at you with a shotgun whenever you trespass on my (intellectual) property. As a photographer, copyright issues can easily become a public relations nightmare. You are very capable of, with the law in hand, effectively alienating the better part of your customer base in a heartbeat, so instead of focusing too much on what you cannot do and how dire the consequences might become if you do, let’s try another approach..

~ Copyright 101 ~

Copyright is a legal right given by a country that grants the creator of an artistic work exclusive right to use and distribute his or her creative content [1]. This means that a painter, illustration artist, photographer, writer or any other creator of artistic work has the sole right to display his or her work in public. In addition to the right of distribution creators also have “moral rights”, which include the right to be attributed (credited) for their work whenever it is displayed publicly.

To be able to lawfully publish someone else’s work you therefore need either a transfer of copyright or more commonly a license. Licenses grant you the right to publish an artwork under a specific set of conditions. Selling such licenses of their work to private persons, newspapers or businesses is how photographers usually make money. In theory, that is.

~ Private use ~

In real life, most convention photographers put hundreds of hours of work-time into bringing out the best in you and your costumes and we barely make enough to cover the travel costs from it. Instead we often give out so called personal licenses, a free-to-use license that give you as an individual the right to publish our work on platforms you yourself control. This means you can publish a photo I’ve taken on your facebook (profile and page), Deviant Art or other social media accounts that represents you as a person as long as you credit everyone involved in the project.

Other than that there’s not much you can do with the photo. You cannot crop or edit it, submit it for community spotlights or contests or otherwise allow third parties to publish the photo. Some photographers allow a certain leeway when it comes to side-by-side comparisons, header photos and other Facebook trends as long as you don’t crop the picture (I’m one of those), but you should always ask first to see if it’s okay.

~ Commercial Use ~

A lot of cosplayers also do lineups where they feature what costumes they are going to wear at a given, upcoming event. The real problem here is not the lineup in itself but when people add official logos, fonts and information from the event organizer to the lineup, essentially creating free marketing material for the event.

Marketing material is expensive. If the event themselves wants to create a lineup header with three pictures they would have to pay the respective photographers a decent sum of money – something along the lines of what would actually cover the cost of travel, (a relatively cheap) hotel and food for an entire weekend convention per picture. But why would an event need to create marketing material when you do it all for them for free?

So please stop up for a second and think before you act, because you might inadvertently not only be in breach of the terms you have agreed upon with your photographer, but you might also make it a lot harder for us to be able to do what we love.

I’m going to write more about some of the pitfalls of commercial use at some later occasion, but for now let’s just say that if anyone who is not yourself wants to use, or greatly benefit from your use of a picture of you in any given context you need to get in contact your photographer before putting it online.

And that’s really the essence of what I want to communicate in this post.

~ The Art of Asking ~

Like all creative artists we photographers love it when people want to use our photos, whether it’s for features, interviews, contests, headers, lineups, prints or anything you could think of – we’re more likely to embrace the idea than not.

But we also have to protect our work from those who would want to exploit it. We have to read the fine print, making sure we’re not selling our very souls in the process of getting fifteen seconds of internet fame. We may have to consider that “if I do this work for free it means some other photographer isn’t getting paid” and if there is money involved we need to make sure we get a slice of the proverbial cake. We have to make an informed choice.

By asking us for permission you are allowing us to be nice and say yes when it is appropriate, and say no when it is not. We get to be the good guys who let you do cool stuff with our photos instead of the grumpy shotgun-wielding neighbors who keep sending you angry messages about how your feet is planted on our lawn.

So if you’re going to remember just one thing about copyright then remember this: Talk to your photographer.


(And yes the title is totally a reference to Amanda Palmers book “The Art of Asking” which you can read more about or buy here)

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