One of the biggest hurdles in publishing – whether commercially, online, independently or by the big corporates – is navigating licensing requirements.
It’s especially true in this computer age, where we’re encouraged to copy – sites like Pinterest or Tumblr pivot on it. And, truth be told, a fair proportion of that copying WILL be infringement. The question is whether the owners object. Mostly, I suspect they won’t.
Other sites post content as an index/selector for licensed photos. That can be a trap for the unwary. I saw a story, a while back, about an amateur home web publisher who found a couple of images on the Getty library site. Used them, thinking ‘they’re on the web, therefore they’re free’ …and, about three months later, received an account at their commercial rate. Hideously expensive for an indvidual with a private website.
A lot of pictures are public domain – but it’s important to follow process to make sure. Copyright terms differ. In Britain it’s 75 years after author death. In New Zealand it’s 50 (counted at the end of the calendar year). In the US, it’s so complex you have to be an attorney to puzzle it out. Crown or government copyright is different again – in the US, for instance, government-created material can be freely used. But that’s not so in New Zealand or Britain, for instance.
Basically, if a picture isn’t public domain, you’ll need to license it. Or use your own.
That applies to anything you publish – be it online in a website, or in a book (which, these days, is likely to be online). It’s especially important for book covers, where licensing fees are often special, reflecting the greater profile the cover has relative to internal pictures.
What’s more, even negotiating rights can carry traps. You aren’t buying copyright – you’re licensing the right to use a copyright image for a specific purpose. That can be time limited, or restricted to a specific publication. You don’t have free reign.
How to handle it? I am not a solicitor and this advice shouldn’t be taken to supersede or replace anything you may obtain professionally. Copyright laws also vary from country to country.
However, as a rule of thumb, there are basic principles it pays to follow. If you’re licensing a photo, make sure you have the rights you need. Some photo libraries also distinguish – even today – between print and e-publishing rights. Make sure you get both. Some online pictures also carry explicit terms for use with them – New Zealand’s online National Library collection, which runs to tens of thousands of images, does this.
If you’re commissioning artwork, make sure you have an agreement that transfers copyright to you. This is implicit in the act of commissioning, but it’s better to be explicit, these days. Also bear in mind that, if you use a separate designer, you’ll need the rights to that design too. That’s also implicit in any commissioning – but it pays to be explicit. A design using others’ licensed copyright material is, of itself, otherwise copyright to the designer as a ‘collage’. This is also why photographs are copyright to the photographer, even if they incidentally show material copyright to others within their composition (the key is ‘incidentally’).
It’s laborious and painstaking – and yes, it’ll cost. But it’s cheap by comparison with the cost of a post-fact scrabble to make good, when an aggrieved owner turns up with a copyright claim.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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