So You Want to Hire a Photographer – Who Owns What? By James Baugh

Hiring a professional photographer can be a great investment in your business, allowing you to present a professional, polished face to the world, whether that face is your own, that of a product or some other related facet of your company. Choosing a professional photographer over your friend who “takes photos” can mean the difference between success and failure, however, it also comes with some important caveats that you should understand to save yourself a few headaches.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they hire a photographer is that they are buying photographs. In reality, they are buying very specific USAGE RIGHTS to reproduce an image that is owned by the photographer.


Most people assume that because they paid for the shoot, provided the products, maybe even a prop or two, that the images now also belong to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth and is where most disagreements begin between photographers and the people who hire them. Under federal law the copyright is retained by the photographer. You can purchase the copyright, but the reality is you probably don’t need it and it will be cost-prohibitive anyway.

Usage is, in layman’s terms, a RENTAL of the image(s) unless otherwise explicitly stated in the contract. Generally, usage costs reflect the amount of exposure a particular image may receive based on a particular usage. The more exposure, the higher the price. Honestly, usage can save you money over other options like Unlimited Usage or buying the actual copyright. You buy what you need for the time you need it and then re-license the image(s) if you need either more time or more exposure.

The time period can be any mutually agreed upon length of time: one year, two years, one-time, etc., but standard usage is most often one year of use in a specific medium unless otherwise specified or negotiated. The number of times you can use the image(s) within the time period is known as rights or quantity. Limited rights, sensibly, limit the number of times you can use the image(s), such as “2 insertions” or “run of 5,000” within the time period purchased. Unlimited rights allows you to use an image as often as you like during the chosen time period. This isn’t the same as unlimited time, however, and you cannot resell or allow a third-party to use the image.

A total buyout is the option that many people assume comes requisite with any commissioned work, but is actually the most expensive and generally unnecessary choice when considering images. It will give you complete ownership of the image and full rights to do whatever you want with the image, but it will come at a huge cost.

You must also consider exclusivity – whether or not the photographer can sell the image(s) to others during the time period you have purchased – and whether that extends to the entire market or just your industry. Limiting to your industry is usually the less expensive option. While considering exclusivity, the photographer may also offer you market licensing which limits your use of the image(s) to trade, editorial or consumer markets with each level growing progressively more expansive and expensive. Geographic region is another licensing option and determines where you can use the images, whether that is locally, globally, nationally or some other combination of generality or specificity. Your license may limit the media in which the image(s) may be used, from “any and all” to very specific “Point-of-Sale”.

These are the most common examples of usage rights and should allow you to make an informed decision when negotiating for image licenses.

Copyright © 2015 by James Baugh