I’ll start off with the basics in this article, which help explain why an image license is even a thing.

This article focuses on U.S.-based image licensing, because we are based in California and the U.S. copyright laws apply to the commercial animal photography services we provide to our clients.

If you are based outside of the U.S., and doing business with us, those copyright laws still apply.

Basics of copyright:

When a photographer creates a photo, they immediately own the copyright to that photo. The photo is property and they are the legal owner of that property (their ‘intellectual property’), unless a copyright transfer agreement has been drafted. (More on that later.)

The photographer can then display that photo in their portfolio, on social media, in printed collateral, in art showings, etc, and sell the rights to use that photo to any commercial client (usage rights).

Benefits of copyright:

If the photographer chooses, they can even get a formal copyright certificate for the photo, which affords them additional legal protections of their intellectual property. We register the copyright on images from all shoots we do for clients, which enables us to provide the maximum in protection for the images we create.

We use tracking technology that alerts us to copyright infringement (e.g. when any of the images we create have been ‘stolen’), and because we own the copyright we can get those images removed fast. In worst-case scenarios, we’ll sue over the infringement. Many of our clients are international household names, and we’ll go to bat for them to protect the assets we created for them.

It’s a pretty terrible thing when a company pays good money to have images created for their exclusive use, and they discover those images on a competing company’s website.

Usage licenses:

A commercial photography usage license is an agreement between the intellectual property owner and another party that wants to use the images for their commercial purposes.

The license spells out what that usage is exactly (on billboards, on the homepage of a website, in one social media post, etc), with a fee attached that’s based on value to the client. Obviously the value of a billboard in terms of revenue generated is going to be significantly higher than using the image on a contact page of a website, so usage is the top factor in determining pricing.

Rights-managed vs royalty-free usage licenses: 

Think about when you purchase a stock photo from a stock website. Some photos are considered royalty-free, where you don’t have to spell out the use, and some photos are rights-managed, where the agency (or photographer) controls the use the buyer is allowed. Generally in commercial photography when assets are being created for a client’s use, the usage license is rights-managed as opposed to royalty-free.

Why rights-managed licenses exist with stock photos and not commercial photography:

Royalty-free image licenses are found in stock photography because they aren’t being licensed for exclusive use. Because hundreds of thousands or even millions of users can end up using the same photo, the stock agencies can afford to extend very low royalty-free usage fees.

This can be a confusing area for clients who have minimal or no experience hiring a commercial photographer, who assume that they become the legal owner of the images after the photographer creates them.

They assume that they are having products created for their use, so they own the products, much like if they were purchasing any other product on the market. That isn’t the case when copyright and intellectual property comes into play.

Royalty-free usage licenses as compared to licensing songs:

Usage licenses and usage fees are similar to royalty agreements and payments in the usage of songs. But because you can’t track the use of a photo the same way you can track the playing of a song, you pre-pay for the estimated future usage. Both parties- photographer and client- work together to try and determine what that usage is/might be so that you aren’t paying for usage you don’t actually need, and so that you aren’t actually using the intellectual property in ways you didn’t pay for.

A growing trend in the industry is for companies to ask for unrestricted exclusive-use licensing in perpetuity. This means that they would be the only party who could ever use the photographer’s intellectual property, for whatever usage they wanted, in perpetuity. The photographer would retain the right to use their property for promotional use only, but would relinquish all other rights to their work.

Exclusive, unrestricted use = a very high price tag

Because of the value involved in an ‘exclusive, unrestricted, in perpetuity’ license, it always comes with a very high price tag, as the only value the photographer then has in their work is promotional, and the buyer of the license gets immense value from it. If they go on to be the next Nike or Apple, they can continue to generate millions of dollars in revenue every year from the usage of the images in advertising and marketing.

The vast majority of clients will never need unrestricted licensing, because they will never take advantage of most of the usage that licensing type includes, which includes everything from ads on the side of busses, to displaying the photo in a tv show scene, to printing on mass-produced mugs and t-shirts. ETC.

What makes the most sense, and what we recommend doing (and often do), is extend exclusive use licensing with broad rights (like printed collateral + all social media for example) for a period of one or two years. This keeps the cost down and affords the exclusivity to the client that they need. But it also prevents overpaying for assets they are unlikely to use two years from now.

The benefits of the vast majority of photos in this day and age of digital-first marketing, really occurs in the first year or two of use (or even just a matter of days or months in the case of digital advertising and social media.)

Work-for-hire agreements

Finally, there are work-for-hire agreements, which are typically employed in situations where the photographer is an employee of a company.

When a photographer is an employee, they get benefits and vacation pay and medical insurance, etc. The company then owns the copyright, pays for all of the gear (which is expensive) and the photographer is paid an hourly wage, with a consistent 160 hours per month (or more.)

This arrangement is a win-win for both parties, as most freelance commercial photographers don’t even come remotely close to working 160 billable hours per month, and they have to pay all of their own expenses and taxes, which often come to 40% (or more) of their revenue.

Sometimes clients will contact freelance commercial photographers or agencies like ours and expect a work-for-hire arrangement where our photographers (and us) sign over the copyright to the client, and they pay what amounts to an hourly wage for the photography service and usage.

Unfortunately clients who ask for this usually don’t realize that a) it’s an unreasonable request, and b) it’s offensive to ask for it because it’s really trying to take advantage of the creative by asking for everything and paying very little for it. (At Cowbelly Media we don’t provide work-for-hire shoots.)

The same benefits for the client can be attained from doing an unrestricted license in perpetuity, or including the categories of use the client is most likely to use, for a set period of time. (This is what we do for all but our biggest clients, because it provides a great benefit to our clients at a lower cost.)

Very few companies actually need to own the copyrights on the intellectual property.

Real-life commercial photography estimates

If you’d like to see a wide variety of real-life commercial photography estimates for shoots in every industry, take a look here. You’ll find real-world pricing for all aspects of a photo shoot, where it’s clear that they run the gamut from low-budget commercial photo shoots under $10k to shoots that are well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most commercial shoots are somewhere in between.

Are you a pet company in need of compelling and engaging imagery? We have over 16 years of experience creating animal images for some of the world’s top pet brands. We’d love to chat, and you can request a quote from us here.

Jamie Piper

Head Honcho / Lead Commercial Animal Photographer at Cowbelly Media
Jamie photographs animals sometimes, manages clients a lot of the times, hugs her dog Magoo all of the times, and wishes she could drink craft beer every single time. She lives and works in sunny San Diego California, and road trips every chance she gets.
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