For Arts’ Sake, Own It!

Portrait of Tom Schumacher
Copyright Owners Unite!

The single biggest headache I’ve had (and continue to have) as a self-employed professional artist is getting across the idea to my clientele that I own MY artwork and that they are merely licensing the use of MY artwork for their purposes. If (and only if), I sign over MY copyrights to my clientele, do they then take “ownership” of MY artwork. Other than that act, we self-employed artists always own our work. Period. Easy concept to say. Easy concept to grasp. Hard concept to put into play.


I’ll give you my observations from listening to others talking about their various copyright ownership negotiations over the years: They were afraid of not getting the job. (reasonable) They were afraid of making the client mad. (again reasonable) They did not know they owned their own work. (WHAT? THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR NOT KNOWING THAT!) When you work for yourself what do you have? An expectation of security? An expectation of enough money? An expectation of owning your own home? An expectation of having a comfortable after work life? An expectation of contentment? You get the idea.

You can have all of the above and more but you have to fight (negotiate) for it. Who can predict the future? (Can you predict future cash flow from the photos in your archive?) The US copyright law recognizes artists’ copyrights. Don’t let clients walk all over these rights. Clients do this because you let them. Stop it. Now. Fight (negotiate, explain, cajole) for what is yours by an act of law and by being the creator of YOUR art.

Artists by nature (intelligent design?) are right-brained (not hair-brained, not left-brained) and frequently back away from the tough task of being their own advocate when it comes to pricing and protecting their work. Another important hat we self-employed professional artists wear is that of educator. It is our job to ensure that our client base understands the copyright law and how it affects the price of professional photography. Engage in the work ethic of copyright ownership negotiation and you will enjoy many long-term self-employed professional artist benefits (positive cash flow being one).

For example (you knew one was coming, didn’t you?), in 1994 I was commissioned by The Walt Disney Company’s feature animation unit to photograph several hundred artists, administrators, technical support staff, drivers and executives who worked on Pocahontas. I was paid well for the project and one item of particular importance during the negotiations was physical ownership of MY film and copyrights. I explained why (see above) these two items were important to me. There were some tense moments but in the end I maintained my position. I am not in any way suggesting my client at the time (who to this day is a friend) was weak. Not at all. He was in a power position and could have gone to another provider. I was counting on my relationship with him, his intellect and my talents as a negotiator and portrait artist to win the contract. He won too in that he had selected a photographer who was a seasoned professional, who had completed dozens of previous assignments, who was going to help produce the project and who always delivered results. Everybody won that day. The book turned out well and all was good in the land of Disney.

In July of this year, I get an email from a production company doing a documentary film on the history of Disney animation. They want to use a photo from the aforementioned Pocahontas portrait project. They had checked around the studio archives and research library and couldn’t find MY film anywhere. (Go figure!) So the producer (a former client) suggested they contact me. We discussed their desire to include MY image in their film. I asked them to send me a contract spelling out exactly how they intended to use MY photograph. I was able to negotiate a decent sum for the use of MY image. Because I kept ownership of MY work, I was able to use that leverage to get what I wanted while giving them what they desired. For me it was found money. For them it was a problem solved. Fifteen years after the fact, I was paid again for the use of MY photograph. A good reason to own your own artwork. You never know when that phone call or email will come. And when it does, you want to be prepared.

To be honest, I hate this part of the business but it goes with being a professional self-employed artist. And frankly some photographic assignments don’t require this negotiation. I decide on a case-by-case basis what’s worth fighting for. I learn by doing. Win some. Lose some. Break even on some. That is the reality. But keep at it and eventually you’ll arrive at a place where you’re able to secure these important rights when need be. That is the goal. The government gives these rights to YOU. Don’t give them away, don’t ignore them. They’re precious and need to be respected by YOU and in turn your clientele will respect them too.

Good luck to all of us.

Michael Stern

My work depicts, appreciates and honors the people who build. Their specialized equipment and stunning challenges are marvels I behold and get paid to interpret. Hope you enjoy this site.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Menu
%d bloggers like this: