What if my client asks for copyright?

May 26, 2016

Topic: Copyright
Time Investment: 7 Minutes
Suggested Product: Ultimate Copyright Kit


“My client emailed and wants me to release copyrights of my work! What do I do?”  

This is a super simple process that we should walk through so that you understand the best method to evaluation, your rights, and help you to make a better decision.  

I don’t recommend jumping on the “I refuse to listen to my client’s request” train, as I see in many online forums.  Instead, research through this article and make the best decision for you.


Examine the request

First, let’s get it right off the table that not all clients are out to get us.  Many have been burned and the stories are rampantly shared in online forums and it puts everyone on the defensiveness.  This does no good.  It’s like smacking the hand before it does anything to you.

Whenever a client has a request in your business – STOP! LOOK! and LISTEN!  That sounds too simple, right?

  • Inquire to what their purpose for the copyright ownership is.
  • Research to see if you’re “ok” with this.
  • Formulate a response.
  • Stand by it.

The goal is for collaborative problem solving.  Many times clients aren’t aware that what they are asking may be a “faux pas” simply because they haven’t been educated. Now is your chance to be that person. To educate our clients and raise the industry bar a little bit more!


Is it truly copyright they want?

The thing is, most clients believe they must have copyright ownership of their images in order to print.  That is not always the case.  They can possess a print license (image use license, etc. it can be a called a couple of things – the importance is the language within the release). See Copyright versus Print Release.

Industry standard is for a print release that provides personal printing rights to a portrait client, however, copyright transfer is not unheard of.

Note: If you’re not in the U.S., be sure to check your copyright laws about ownership and transfer.


What if I’m okay with selling copyright?

It is also industry standard, or so it seems apparent on the Internet, to jump on the train of refusing to sell copyright.

Before you scroll past this section, I want you to consider:

  • What is the market value for images of a private, unknown individual?
  • What can you truly make off those images later?
  • What is the purpose of retaining the copyrights for the images?

Sure, they could end up being a huge superstar, and you captured an intimate moment before they made it big. But it is false to believe that because you have the copyrights now that you couldn’t be restricted from use in future (i.e. privacy laws, etc.).

All that being said, if you are okay with selling copyright ownership, you can do this. It is your prerogative.  TheLawTog® recommendation would be to at least ask for a license back for use of those images in your marketing.  If the client declines, that isn’t always the end of the world.

Oftentimes, clients just have private matters at hand that could have been settled by allowing them to decline a model release, but others insist on the copyright sale and transfer.   Be sure to price appropriately and utilize a copyright transfer agreement.

Just be sure to understand, that unless otherwise agreed to, the copyright owner can utilize the images in the fashion they see fit.  This client who purchases the copyrights could potentially turn around and sell or use these images in other manners that a photographer may not see fit. (While others may not care!)

Related:  How to transfer copyright to another party


What if I’m NOT okay with selling copyright?

Then you aren’t okay, and it is simply okay to tell your client no.  In America, unless contracted otherwise, or in a situation where the intellectual property would be owned by another individual or company (such as an employer/employee relationship), you retain the copyrights and have the decision-making power.

I recommend that you are adequately understanding the situation and confident in the decision you’ve made without blindly responding due to colleague pressures.


What about shared copyright?

This is absolutely a “thing” and can be done.  There are many issues that can arise that lend itself to its own article another day.

But if a client does request shared copyright, here is more reading for your pleasure.


How much should I charge for copyrights?

This is such an arbitrary question to ask.  Much like pricing in general – it depends on a variety of things.  Market research will reveal the industry standard crossed with your local going rates.  Then we have to throw in the fact this is a personalized service, and you also have your own skill, talent, and artistic value.

The bottom line is that the amount to charge should be more than print release/license amount.  It will also boil down to whether you’re going to have loss of marketing rights or if the client is willing to license that back to you.  All of this works together and should be examined to come up with an adequate copyright transfer of ownership fee.

Now you’re equipped to move forward with copyright transfers or retaining your copyright if you so wish!


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