What types of copyright licenses can a photographer rely on when doing business?

Photography is one of those areas where creators, in this case photographers, have to rely on intellectual property laws, in particular, the copyright law, in order to make their living.

The reason for this mix between creativity and legal theory and practice, which sometimes looks terrifying for the creators, is the simple fact that photographs as intellectual products have an intangible value that can be controlled only based on the law, or at least that is the classic explanation.

If we take this for granted, what are the particular ways every photographer to take advantage of this legal protection.

The general rule of thumb is that one original photo can be used only after permission by the author with an exception of some cases of fair use.

This permission can be provided by a written document called a copyright license. The legislation in some countries allows even the assignment of copyrights, but for the purpose of this article we will focus our attention only on license agreements.

They provide the user of a photograph with the necessary rights to use it under specific circumstances, such as a term, territory, fee etc.

There is two main types of licenses:

  • Exclusive licenses – exclusive means that only the Licensee can use the licensed  photo. That is to say the relevant economic and moral copyright rights will be transferred to the Licensee and nobody else will be able to take advantage of them. This includes the photographer too, who will not be able to use the licensed photo with exception of the cases where this possibility is explicitly stipulated in the agreement. Exclusivity can cover all copyrights or only some part of them.
  • Non-exclusive licenses – in general, a non-exclusive license means that more than one Licensee can use the relevant image subject matter to the agreement. The photographer remains free to use the same photo as well as to allow any other Licensees to do that too. There are no restrictions like in the case of exclusive licensing. This type of license is the most widespread because it allows photographers to maximize all commercial benefits of their works. The reason for this effect is quite simple. While in the case of an exclusive license, only one purchaser can use the image and will pay only one remuneration for that purpose, in the case of non-exclusive licenses it is possible for many licensees to buy permission for the use of the photo paying separate fees for that purpose. Of course, because there will be no exclusivity, these licenses will be cheaper compared with the exclusive ones. Nevertheless due to the potentially huge volume of  granted licenses the profit could be even greater.  

Every photographer should be very careful what type of license gives to the photo users. In the case of an exclusive one, this will means that no one else will be able to use the same photo for the relevant purpose, which normally means that the profit per image will be higher for the photographer.

On the other hand with a non-exclusive license the photographer will be able to give unlimited licenses to new and new users although at a lower price.

If you want to learn more about the nitty-gritty of copyright protection of photographs you can check this new Udemy course: Photography & Copyright: A Complete guide for photographers.