Write it now: licensing your blog and book photos

One of the biggest hurdles in publishing – whether commercially, online, independently or by the big corporates – is navigating licensing requirements.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.
I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

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.

It was easy to deal with the rights for the main photo on  the cover of my book Trucks. Why? I took it.
It was easy to deal with the rights for the main photo on the cover of my book Trucks. Why? I took it.

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

Coming up: More writing tips, history, science geekery and more. Watch this space.


7 thoughts on “Write it now: licensing your blog and book photos

    1. Me too. I tend these days to veer more towards my own photos, mainly for licensing reasons – and I can span them across to Pinterest. It’s surprising how many of my images have been copied.

  1. This is especially interesting to me. I’m putting together a collection of flash fiction for a book, and I need a cover for it. I’m considering asking some folks at deviantart.com if they’re willing to offer up an art piece I could make into a cover. I’m hoping they’ll grant use for free just so their art gains a wider audience. And then I don’t know how the legalese works after that.

    1. It’s worth a try. Make sure you get any agreement written down. Ideally get the whole copyright and publishing license. Again – I’m not a solicitor (or too familiar with North American practise) – If in doubt, it may be cheaper to find an attorney who’s got the expertise than it is to deal with post-fact litigation, or the hassle of withdrawing stuff. I guess a lot depends on the artist. Good luck!

  2. I was surprised to get an email from a London film company a couple of years ago, asking about one of my photos. They were filming an episode of one of those ghastly cooking shows that goes into people’s homes and there was a small canvas print of a tree fern on the wall. They found my name on the back and went to the trouble of contacting me to get permission for it to be left on the wall in the background. If the professionals take copyright that seriously it’s a nudge to us to do the same. It must take up a huge amount of their time for something that seems so insignificant.

    I never did see my work featured – couldn’t bear to sit through an entire series on the off-chance of spotting it!

    1. Wonderful that they tracked you down! A counterpoint to the intellectual void otherwise offered by TV combat cookery. But I can understand their care. In NZ law, incidental use in a background is permitted providing the material isn’t the primary subject of a picture, and I guess that’s the same overseas. But it’s a judgement call & becomes rather a ‘grey area’… (why did I just think of ‘Letter to Blanchy’ just then?)

      Of course, enforcing copyright is difficult. Some of my stuff was infringed last year by a local Professor who I only know from his earlier public denials of worth of the books I write to earn an income in the territory where he is paid a salary at my expense as taxpayer. I wrote to object to his infringement. The result? Nothing. I can only speculate as to why. Perhaps he thinks his denial of my competence in his territory also means he can help himself to my intellectual property? Or maybe the Professor thinks that if he ignores my objection, I won’t be prepared to go to the expense of getting a solicitor on to it and pursuing a settlement that – in reality – might well result only in a desultory cash payment that won’t cover my costs?

      Not sure – I can only speculate, as the Professor hasn’t had the courage to talk to me.

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