Should You Ever release Your Photo Rights To Your Client?

May 17th, 2016

3rdParyViolationRandall poses the following question:

I just received an email from a new client I did a shoot for. They asked me to sign a release that would release my copyright to them. My terms of service on my invoice says the Realtor is granted a usage license to use the images in any manner they choose as long as the house is for sale or until it is removed from the market. I keep reading here on the PFRE blog, not to release your copyrights. Would I be foolish to sign this agreement?

Randall, to answer your question much depends on how likely it is that you can or will ever relicense this client’s images. Even though most of the discussion here on PFRE recommends that you retain your rights so that you can relicense images a poll back in March showed that a majority (90%) of PFRE readers never or rarely ever relicense their real estate work. I’m not sure why this is.

So in getting to an answer you have to determine:

  1. Are you likely to relicense these images? Do you regularly relicense your images?
  2. If you refuse to sign the clients release are you likely to lose this client? Is this a good client that you don’t want to loose?
  3. It may make sense for you to charge a higher fee for photos when you when you release your rights to the client?

If you never relicense images or never put any energy into relicensing images like 52% of the PFRE readers on the poll it doesn’t make much difference if you sign the release or not. On the other hand, if you are likely to lose money by signing the release you should either charge more for signing it or don’t sign it. The answer is going to be different for different real estate photographers.

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9 Responses to “Should You Ever release Your Photo Rights To Your Client?”

  • I never say no….just how much. Larry’s points are on the mark, the only condition that I have ever placed is that I still have the rights to use the images for my own marketing if I wish. The fact is that most clients do not understand what they are asking for when they request a release. Discuss the reasoning with them and then if they still want to move forward, come up with a price you are happy with.

    The way I read it, your usage rights limit them to the life of the listing….I grant them license to use the images for their marketing needs after the fact, farming areas, portfolio of how they use pros instead of Iphones, etc

  • I would not sign your rights away unless they are willing to pay for it. 5 x the shoot price is a realistic multiple for something like this to start the conversation. If the images they want to “own” are that valuable to them, then they should be willing to pay for it. Otherwise, you’re setting a sad precedent that you will have to to fight to get away from on all future projects. Additionally, every other photographer that deals with them in the future will have to “re-educate” them on how the photography business really works. You might as well educate them now. Being that this is a new client, the issue of rights and usage should have been covered and understood by both parties before the shoot in the form of a contract. Or at the very least in a clear and concise conversation. “All rights” is generally a non-starter for me unless their budget matches their “needs.” Which is almost never!

    I would handle this specific situation like so: If this is a one-time client, charge them a smaller fee (if possible) for the rights and educate them about your copyright/ usage policies going forward. Consider it a learning opportunity for both and do better on the next one. You learned to educate your clients better before the shoot and you also learned that the company is probably not the right client if you wish to be profitable. (unless they pay appropriate fees) If you hear from them again, then they work under your terms and if not then you just dodged a dead-end relationship. win/win

    Places that demand All Rights generally need a photographer on staff so they can get what they want in “work-for-hire” type agreements rather than hiring an independent photographer for each project. Either scenario can be beneficial to the photographer depending on one’s goals. The photographer gets a regular job and a salary (job security), at the expense of their copyright and future licensing revenues. There are costs to the client associated with for both scenarios. Either the monthly costs of employing the photographer as an employee. (Salary + Benefits) all year long. OR by paying a much higher fee to a good photographer / business person to buy the rights on the occasional jobs. Either way, the client (business) should be paying something more for the additional use, convenience, value etc.

    Whether or not you plan on or are currently licensing your images as an additional revenue stream is irrelevant. As a photographer, you should be at least thinking that way. The images have value even if it’s just a low-end property. You may be surprised at the potential. Future relicensing revenue is hard to estimate because the possibilities are endless. However, giving up your copyright will guarantee $0 in relicensing fees.

    “Potential” is one of the reasons I wake up everyday. Without it, I would just sleep. Join the other 48% of photographers that DO re-license their work or believe it’s possible. You don’t have to actively pursue additional licensees, they usually come to you because you have something they want. You just need to be ready when that phone call comes.

    If you’re not quite where you want to be yet, business or photography wise, you can still manage your photography business like you’re the expert. (i.e. Contracts, copyrights, usage fees, re-licensing, being profitable etc.) Then you’ll already be doing things right when you reach the next level with the clientele that operate there. Don’t try to dumb it down for clients that don’t get it or are mandated by ignorant corporate policies.They are looking for a vendor or a supplier, not a photographer. Instead, educate them on how photography works. It’s better for both to go forward in an enlightened way even if that means parting ways.

    Quote from a Realtor friend of mine: “Don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad deal…”

  • I do relicense images and if somebody wants to do a rights buy-out, I will quote them on that option but to-date nobody has wanted to pay. The offers I get can be as low as an extra $40 over my regular fee for making photos of a property. I do much better than that for a single image license. A year or two ago one of the major US RE franchisers wanted their franchisees to require that the copyrights to images were assigned to the national office. A big problem there is that it would kill any chance of licensing images to the national firm or local office to use to advertise themselves. Those usages are worth much more money than for images used to market a home. If you aren’t relicensing your images, spend the slow season developing that side of your business. It can be nice steady income all year round. You might also get orders for images that you can easily make while shooting a home for an RE agent.

    You can do what you like, but if you assign your copyright as a matter of course, you will have hard time changing that policy in the future. You will also lock yourself out of reselling images to a subsequent agent or another buyer. Any image you give up the rights on cannot be used in your own portfolio without a license from your customer. I see it as a bad policy to assign your copyright without proper compensation. Prices could range from $500 per image and up. Even so-so images are worth money. I see magazine advertisement photos every month with bad verticals, blown windows and all sorts of other issues. Somebody got paid to make those images.

    Find out why your customer is requesting assignment of copyright on the images you make for them. There are lots of RE associations that tell their members that they should own the copyright for all of the images they use, but it makes no more sense than buying a car at your destination when you go on holiday rather than renting what you need for that time period. It’s not the principle, it’s the price.

  • Absolutely charge for the extra value! The most frustrating, and infuriating, issue is that every article I have read in Realtor periodicals/web sites that advocate obtaining copyrights totally leaves out the cost issue. The articles are usually written by lawyers, who as a group have it figured out how to charge for answering a question over the phone. All the articles do is set the Realtor up to be blind sighted with a reality check. If you really want to see their eyes glaze over, while quoting them the price also note that they are losing secondary protections as I am not able to register the copyright on photos I do not own and will be incumbent on them for full protection at the level lawyers anticipate on their new property to register with the US Copyright Office at additional cost (don’t tell them how much, but refer to government web site to wade through.)

    I have never had any takers and was so looking forward to an extra grand or two in my pocket!

  • “On the other hand, if you are likely to lose money by signing the release you should either charge more for signing it or don’t sign it.”

    PLUS, if they are going to use this image in a national ad, promoting their company for the next five years, then you deserve more for the image. In that case, it’s not just a listing photo, it’s an advertising photo.

  • I’ve recently gotten into this debate and I stand by what I’ve said before. If push comes to shove and NAR does a big push telling BROKERS (not individual agents) that they need to require full rights to photography in order to ensure that they are able to avoid any legal issues in regards to the images…the real estate phtoography industry will change.

    Those here saying, “Well I’ll demand significantly higher payment then.” do not really get it. A particular agent will not pay more than a certain dollar figure for photos. They don’t care about rights. They don’t care about licensing. All they care about is that they can get “professional photography” for their listings so that when they close a seller down and at the listing appointment by saying, “And I’ll hire a professional photographer when marketing your property” they are able to fulfill on that promise.

    But agents are beholden to their broker’s internal policies. And if BROKERS are convinced by NAR (or their national brank corporate HQ) that NOT having full rights to photos exposes them to POSSIBLE legal problems…those brokers are likely to just institute blanket policies that their agents are required to get full rights to photos for any listing that they bring on.

    In THAT sitaution…the agents are going to do what their boss says. Very few are going to go through all the trouble that is involved with switching brokers just so that they can hold on to their pet photographer.

    Which leads us back to the price thing…

    If those agents require full rights and you as their photographer refuse or say, “Sure buddy. It’s going to cost you 5x as much though from here on out!” Guess what’s going to happen?

    I’ll tell you what’s going to happe for MOST people doing real estate photography. They are going to get the fade out from their agents. Unless you’re the only game in town or you happen to have some magic fairy dust that institutes insane levels of loyalty regardless of price (in which case you should be charging 5x your current rate anyway) then the agents will listen. Smile and nod and say, “Well thanks for letting me know. I’ll keep that in mind when I work out the budget on the next listing. Maybe I’ll just start trying to charge 7% commission instead of 6%. I’ve been meaning to do that for a while now anyway.”

    Then they’ll go on their merry way and NOT raise their commission. Because that’s really a fear-charged thing for most agents who are traditionally charging 6% or less themselves. So no commission increases…instead they’ll start looking for another provider.

    And guess what? They’ll probabaly find one. And as the article says, if the vast majority of photographers here are NOT relicensing their images…then that “potential” revenue means nothing to them. Getting hords of new clients who wants full rights to the photos when you have no plans of ever using them for anything else ever again? Yeah…most people in that position would take that business boost.

    And the whole “Well my quality is better than theirs” logic is a moot point. Unless you’re the only game in town, there is going to be someone else out there providing the same level of quality or even just a TAD LOWER quality…but at the price point that you’re currently charging…or even a bit less. When faced with staying with you at 5x the cost or giving someone new a try…I think we know what most agents would do.

    Heck there are dozens of threats at the Flickr group alone where people are getting advice on how to get new agents on board and the most common theme I see is “hunt down the agents already using a pro photographer and hound them so that when their current photographer slips up, you can be there to get your foot in the door and eventually, have that agent switch to you exclusively”.

    I think that boosting your price by a factor of five would be one of those “slipups” that a competitor could take advantage of.

  • I charge ten times shoot cost to hand over the image copyright. No takers of course. I think when people ask for this it is a good chance to explain to them, through pricing, how copyright transfer works and why it would be this expensive.

  • I just read some of the comments above. People have to understand that if you’re a photographer, your entire identity and means of making a living is gone without imagery. There has to be a high cost, really high, associated with that! A photographer with no photographs to show on social media or in a portfolio won’t be a photographer for long.

  • Here is why realtors need to ask. They can get in trouble with their listing service, usually a local MLS, if they don’t have a full release. Why? When the listing expires, the MLS does NOT trash the photos or info. They stay on the MLS indefinitely, to aid future realtors, appraisers, and other RE “professionals” (I use that term very loosely here) in value estimations and numerous other datamining uses. The images don’t come down for years or more – their access to them changes to “professional” members of that or a partner MLS. Some MLS may even require proof of release or an affirmation to that effect from the realtor before allowing them to upload, for the reasons noted.

    By all means, charge more to the slimy lazy S.o.B.s if you want to give them those rights, or let them renew each term on work you did. If they don’t, you now know why you can and should ask for their relicense fee or an audit of their use, to include access to the MLS profile, in real time. Most MLS have “update” logs too, in case a slimeball tries to change or remove the images first. Trust me, many are that shady, if not most. And I’ve worked with more than I can count, around the country. Was one myself for a time. Isnider knowledge. 😉

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