Photo Usage Rights Explained

If you assign a commercial, advertising or industrial photographer in Shanghai, China, or actually anywhere in Asia, you better know the legal ins and outs before you use the images which the photographer created for you. Using images without the proper license or permission can result in severe monetary damages for you or the company you work for, lawsuits with costly legal fees and under some rare circumstances, even criminal charges.

Regardless if you need an image for a new brochure, your company website or your product packaging, it is important that you have a document (such as a quote or invoice), clearly stating that you have the right to use the specific images in terms of the required time, media and territory.

Not having such a document protects the photographer or the photo studio, and not you as the client! This is one point which most marketing managers and image buyers are not aware off. Again, if you don’t have a document stating that you (as the client) may use the image in the desired way (see below), the photographer in this case remains  the sole owner of the image (even if the object is a product of the client and the photographer got paid for the job!).

There a common practices in different industries. For example, when dealing with cutouts or packshots (simple product shots of products in front of a plain background), usually copyrights or usage rights are not an issue. In this case, the photographer or the photo studio should license the images to the client without any limits in regards to time, media and location.

However, when creating unique and complex images (for example with models, on-location, or with a complex setup), it’s a standard practice that the photographer (or studio) charges an extra usage right fee, which depends on the following desired usage in terms of:

  • time (e.g. 3, 6, 9, 12 or more months),
  • media (e.g. website only, catalog, advertisement, packaging, etc.), and
  • location (e.g. China only, or also Hong Kong/ Taiwan, Japan, USA, etc.).

These three terms cover most of the basics – in some special cases, additional issues such as exclusivity, portfolio rights, etc. matter as well.

Also keep in mind that not only the photographer gets paid more for a greater usage, but also the model, and sometimes also various stylists.  Those usage fees don’t have to be enormous, but are typically in the range of 20-30% of the according service fees for each additional usage, e.g. one extra country, one additional media or one more year.

Following short checklist can help you to cover the basics:

✔ Are you clear on what the image will be used for?
– Will it be used for a billboard advertising campaign? A brochure? Website? Mobile?

✔ Have you confirmed the duration of the license you need?
– How long do you want to use the image for? A week? One month? Several years? Check when the license expires and check the length of the campaign or project the image will be used for.

✔ Are there people in the image?
– Have you checked that a necessary model release form was signed by the model for the image?

✔ Are there any trademarks or logos in the image?
– Have you checked that the photographer holds any necessary property release(s) for the image?

✔ Are there any buildings in the image?
– Have you checked that the photographer holds any necessary property release(s) for the image?

✔ Are there any differences between copyright issues in China and the rest of the world?
– No. As China is one of the 160 countries which signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, all rules and regulations which apply in the rest of the world, such as in the U.S. or Europe, also apply within China.

Below video, and above FAQ are courtesy of Stock Photo Rights, a new and great site to learn more about image usage rights.

Please keep in mind that this blog post is not a substitute for legal advice from your lawyer.