Copyright – photographers are their own worst enemy. (Part 1)

Following the publication of my first book in 1995 I was asked by the Wales Tourist Board to do some landscape photography for them. I was a rather naive at first about copyright; the WTB asked me to transfer it to them. I signed a contarct to that effect but it was accepted with a nod and a wink that I could keep any spares for my own use. It was a compromise that I could happily live with. For several years I did all the work for them that I could and earned a reasonable income from it.

Enter the Photolibrary Wales, set up by the photographer Steve Benbow. This was a traditional slide library, sourcing its images from Welsh photographers and specialising in Welsh subject matter. It was in direct competition with the WTB with one important difference: WTB supplied images free-of-charge to any request related to tourism (and many that weren’t). That seemed fair enough to me too, as they had paid for the images in the first place; but not to Steve, because he had to charge reproduction fees for images of the same type that, in many cases, could be obtained gratis from the Tourist Board. As far as payment to the photographer was concerned, they received a percentage of the repro fee from the library.

In the traditional slide library model the photographer retained copyright, but any photographer commissioned by the WTB was obliged to transfer it over to them. The latter was known in the trade as “a copyright grab”, and was looked upon as being unethical by many photographers. In an attempt to create a better balance between his own business model and principles, and the WTB’s, Steve began agitating for the latter to remove the copyright grab and begin operating like a standard slide library. Photographers were called down to Cardiff for meetings, meetings were held with the WTB, but the latter refused to budge. Although the attempt failed, as an attempt to get photographers to work together towards a common aim, it was relatively successful. Normally they are like cats in a sack. As a result I understood more clearly what the issues were but continued to take up offers of work from the WTB under the understanding then in place.

Then, following devolution, the WTB was absorbed into the the Welsh Assembly Government. At the time of these changes the WTB/ WAG ‘s attitude towards towards photographers hardened and its copyright grab became extreme. I was halfway through a commission when I received a copy of their new contract. Under the new conditions the photographer would be required to hand over every single piece of film exposed while working on the commission – blurred, out of focus, you name it, they insisted on having it! And all to ensure that they had absolute control over all the images they were commissioning. It was quite shocking. I refused to hand over the work I had already done for them, and – it goes without saying – burnt my bridges with them.  I had to accept a reduction in income but I was able to take up other opportunities which were opening up to me at the time. It was tough anyway, continually being on the road – “if it’s sunny then it must be Tenby, or is it the Llyn peninsula?” – and I sometimes felt like little more than a cog in a machine.

So over the next ten years I produced a series of books for Gomer Press. Subjects were either directly commissioned by Gomer, or suggested to them by myself; and I exhibited my work several times. Looking back it was a great time, far more creative and stimulating than working for a tourism client.  As for the WTB/WG no doubt they found enough photographers willing to hand over copyright to allow them to operate successfully.

In 2013 I was asked to quote for some landscape photography for Natural Resources Wales. I enquired what kind of licence they wanted and discovered it was another copyright grab. I explained that they didn’t need copyright but that a licence to use the images within the organisation for a specified number of years would suffice. Eventually they agreed on “joint copyright” which when I thought about it didn’t actually mean very much at all…….. So I quoted, got the job, and handed the work over. They were pleased, and I was able to put a large number of images in my own library. I’ve since used a few of them for my own purposes…. a very few.

That was the last commissioned work I’ve done. My career as a professional photographer continues to wane, so I was very pleased to be asked to quote for some work at my local reserve (Ynyshir) for the RSPB. It was to be part landscape and part “people”. I mentioned a daily rate and then a couple of days later discovered – yes, you’ve guessed it – it was a copyright grab. Their T&C’s were not as extreme as those used by the WG/WTB in that I would be able to use the work on my website, for example. I discussed it with their member of staff and it seemed likely that we could reach a compromise. And then the email came……….sorry, we cannot compromise. Again, no doubt they will find a photographer willing to hand over copyright. The funny thing about Ynyshir is that I know much of the reserve like the back of my hand and have always found it quite difficult to photograph in a distinctive way, so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise!

Edit: bearing in mind the May weather, I don’t have any regrets at all about not doing the Ynyshir job for the RSPB. Instead I was able to travel around southern England for a week without worrying about what I might be missing.  You can read about this trip in the following four posts.

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