Copyright and Concert Photography

Q&A A discussion of concert photography and copyright. Keeping control over your images, rights-grabs, contracts, and who owns what.

Hi Todd,

I am a fan and a frequent visitor to your site. My question is about owner’s rights.

Does the house venue have rights to all or some of your photos, and is the legal arrangement more or less restrictive than shooting for a publication? Do bands claim any rights to your work? I am wondering how much of the pie is left for the photographer after everyone else claims their pieces.

From what is left, do the band members or publicists try to control what shots are published? I am interested in this line of work and want to know what to expect.

Thank you for taking time to answer my questions.

Michael LaFleur
www.lafleurphoto.com

Great question, Michael. The issue of copyright and ownership is a big one, especially as artists, management, and photographers all begin to seize on this persistent aspect of concert photography.

On the topic of copyright, one essential thing to remember is that, as the creator of a work, copyright is an automatic entitlement that remains yours until you transfer or forfeit those rights. Transferring or forfeiting rights is most commonly done through a contract, which may be agreed to before or after the images are made.

Let’s break down your question and look at some of these issues.

Who Owns What?

When shooting for a venue, does the house have rights to all or some of your photos, and is the legal arrangement more or less restrictive than shooting for a publication?

Photographing on behalf of a venue as a house photographer does not forfeit your rights to the images unless the agreement you’ve made with them states so. The best practice is to license the images to the venue on a pre-determined basis, with specific clauses outlining appropriate use and use that is prohibited.

As for shooting for a publication, again, the rights the photographer maintains over the images depend on the working contract. Many publications way require an exclusivity period, in which they are the sole outlet for images one delivers for a specific period of time, but this is not the same as transferal of rights.

In each case, whether shooting for a venue or for a publication, the only rights you lose are the ones you sign away. Until that point, you maintain the whole of the ownership over your work.

The Rights Grab, and Other Contracts

Do bands claim any rights to your work?

Insofar as the images are not libelous or used for commercial purposes, bands do not have claim to the images you make unless, as above, you’ve signed a contract that states otherwise.

This is where the issue of prohibitive photo releases comes up. These contracts, at their worst, state a transfer of rights from the photographer to another party with the intent of maintaining control over the image of an artist. Such extreme agreements are often referred to as “rights-grab” contracts.

Less drastic contracts may ask the photographer to agree to any number of other things, such as not using the images for commercial purposes or simply stating that they will photograph a performance for a specific number of songs.

While some bands and their representatives may make claims to a photographer’s images after the fact, they have no legal right to demand anything unless a contract was signed beforehand.

The Whole Pie

I am wondering how much of the pie is left for the photographer after everyone else claims their pieces.

Basically, you get first dibs on the whole pie until you start giving away slices. As the author of any given unique work, photographers are entitled to the entirety of the rights to an image within the realm of editorial and fine art usage.

Control of Images

From what is left, do the band members or publicists try to control what shots are published?

Some contracts or requests from publicists and artist management may contain clauses requesting final approval of images for publication. In addition, some of these photo releases, which may be required in exchange permission to shoot, may specify a finite period during which the images may be published, or that the images may only be used for a singular publication.

It’s worth noting that the act of granting one permission to photograph is a level of control exercised by publicists and band managers. So, by one’s portfolio or publication, a decision is being made before the show about photography and the potential images.

End Notes:

The moral of the story is that the photographer is the owner to an image’s rights until legally binding agreements state otherwise. If you’re interested in maintaining a maximum of rights possible, it’s in your best interest to scrutinize all contracts, whether these are photo releases required by a band or contracts between you and a publication or venue.

Thanks for your question, Michael!

Disclaimer: While I am a concert photographer, gummy bear aficionado, avid tea drinker, and many other things, I am not a lawyer. I would compel you to seek the council of a legal professional for all important matters of copyright law.

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There are 46 comments

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  1. Michelle McClary

    hey todd, what do you think makes a live shot truely incredible? what do you look for in your photos?

    on a different note, how did you get your start in the concert photography industry?

  2. John

    Great article, serious stuff. I can understand how important this can be in the long run. You never know 10-20 years from now someone will want your work, and you still want to be the owner of your work. Like that Madonna photo recently auctioned, for example. Appreciate your answers.

    • Todd

      Hey John, glad you found this post interesting. It’s definitely a big topic for many photographers, especially those who are shooting artists with rights grabs contracts. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Andreas

    Just one note: The rights you have absolutely depend on the country you live in.

    For example, in Germany, no matter what contract you sign, you always have the owners right since you were the person who created this piece of work. Even if you sign a contract forcing you not to publish the pictures on any other media or not to use them in a commercial way, you remain the owner of the pictures.

    Because of that, most photo contracts of the top class bands, forcing you to pass on all the rights you have on a photo (including these owner rights) are not legit in Germany. Most of the circumstances (no contract copy for the photographer for example) are highly doubtable from the view of the German law.

    • Todd

      Hey Andreas, great point here about international laws. Contract law and copyright issues will vary from country to country, as you point out. I wishes that we in the US were as lucky in regard to the law siding with the author.

  4. Tasha

    What about a release that claims to own the rights, but stipulates they cannot use the photos without the photographers permission, or transfer the rights to a third party. Also, it does not require the photographer to send the photos to them.

    • Todd

      Hi Tasha, good question.

      Again, I have to state that I’m not a lawyer. But my understanding of these issues is that contracts like the one describe are basically safeguarding the artist – and their management company – from potential abuse of the images. By having the photographer agree to sign over the copyright, they guarantee a legal basis for protecting their interests against libelous or inappropriate use. So far as I know, they do not have to be in possession of the images in any form to claim copyright.

      In terms of not using the images without the photographer’s permission, to me, this is an assurance that they’re not going to exploit the work. Likewise, the statement not to transfer the rights is basically there to make the photographer feel better.

  5. Tom K Clarke

    Really well written piece. I’m in the process of writing my dissertation on photographers copyright, the big problem for photographers isn’t so much the law as it is management companies attitude towards photographers. There’s no way I can see to change the law to stop management companies from going for right grabs, its only going to happen if all photographers say no to signing the contracts. That said the law is outdated in the sense that it doesnt take into account the growth of the internet and social networking. In the UK the process of changing the law is under way with review papers in the last three years and a Issues Paper put out by the IPO in Decmember.

    • Todd

      Hey Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right, a flat-out boycott of rights grabs would be fantastic. I believe that some press associations in Scandinavia have adopted this stance. In the US, it seems that there are simply too many people who are happy to sign away their rights just for the opportunity, though maybe this attitude could change, too.

      Hopefully we’ll see some meaningful changes in the future that will benefit photographers, though I’m not too optimistic on that front, unfortunately. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  6. BrYan Kremkau

    Great and timely article for me considering I just turned down to shoot Morrissey based on the fact that he has a photo release form now. I’d rather not go to a show then fork over my rights to a musician or band’s management. Especially if i’m not getting paid for the gig, what’s in it for me besides taking pictures that someone in management and/or the band could take from me in the future. And I have to remove the photos within a year; even if I didn’t I would want to play around with something so legally binding.

    I just wish publications and websites would organize a stance on this stuff and choose not to cover the bands that have photo release. Let’s see how quickly the bands go away after no one covers them anymore. but of course that will never happen since everyone, like you guys said, are happy to sign a waiver just to get a chance to shoot a bigger named artists. I think i’ll stick with the smaller bands and enjoy that experience more. phew, long comment. haha.

    • Todd

      Hi Bryan,

      It’s a real issue. Luckily one of the publications that I shoot for has taken a stand on these contracts in the past. I’m happy to say that they’ve boycotted the show, or at least images directly of the performer, due to the photo policy mandated by management. We’ll see how it goes for Morrissey. I shot him two years ago and Moz is a fantastic performer, I would hate to miss him this go around.

  7. janet

    The most important item to remember when dealing with joint commercial copyright is after you have shot “the band” you are not legally authorized to sell ANY images of that band for profit.

    When I shot Metallica, I was amazed they did not make use sign any kind of a release.

    But just because a band does not make you sign a release does not mean you are free to do whatever you want with those images.

    • Todd

      Yes – just because one owns the copyright doesn’t mean that there are zero limits on the use of the images. Commercial applications require permission, and of course instances of libel would not come without repercussions.

  8. Michael

    Todd,

    It’s good to know what my rights are, so I can respond to these situations in a professional manner without being taken advantage of. Thanks for sharing your personal experience in this area.

    • Todd

      Hey Amy,

      I’m really happy to answer these questions. Please feel free to submit your own, too. I think we can all learn from each other.

  9. Matt

    Hello Todd,
    I have a question on taking photos of free concerts or maybe Epcot in Disney. My question is can they do anything to me as far as selling photos of the bands from there if there is no contracts or been warned not to take them do I have to right to sell them?

    Thanks again,
    Matt

  10. adiiru

    I recently shot a Japanese band, actually one you shot a few years ago ;), that stipulated that the only way I would be allowed to shoot was if I gave away all the rights to them. They would be able to use the photos in whatever form they wanted from editorial to commercial & I could use them for promotional use only. But closer to the show it changed from the above to only 6 images chosen by the editor who set it up. No contract has been drawn or signed by any party. What rights do I have?

  11. aldo

    thanks so much, this article was very helpful as I’ve got concert to write about this Saturday and was worried about the ownership of the photos I’m going to be taking.

    Thanks again,

    Aldo

  12. Jay

    Todd, thanks for the info. I am currently dealing with my first rights grab request from a management company.

    When you have been faced with that situation in the past, have you been able to successfully negotiate that clause away? Or, do you find that labels and management companies take a hard line?

    Right now, my attitude is, under these circumstances, it’s better to shoot with my G10 in the front row than with my D7000 in the pit.

  13. donnam13

    I would like to copy/paste your post in its entirety into a new page on my photography blog. I will link directly back to this page of course. The info is pertinent and I often have to sign my entire rights away to shoot the larger name bands, or they wont let me in to do so.. if more photographers knew their rights (and the fact that without US there would be no online or in print PR for the artists or the record labels or ticket promoters) perhaps we would not be required to sign such stringent waivers

    • Todd

      If you’d like to link to this article, that is fine, but I request that you not copy and paste the entire article. Thanks for the interest.

  14. Jeff Levy

    Todd, Thanks for the great article. I’ve learned a lot from you and admire your work.

    My question is can I use images of an artist in my online portfolio if a rights grab release was signed? When I shot Musikfest last year some artists like Stone Temple Pilots, Maroon 5 and Miranda Cosgrove required photographers to sign a contract to shoot the shows.

  15. Michelle

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the article. I understand you’re not a lawyer but I would like your take on a situation I currently find myself in.

    I am officially employed part time at a theatre as a stage technician, stage manager, lighting tech. My tech director asked if I could take photos of a few set, lighting and projection designs because I have the great camera and I’m learning photography etc etc. I said fine. I was on the clock between what my official job was and taking the photos. Photos turned out great he was happy, no biggie. That was about 6 months ago.

    Last week he asked if I would take photos of a band performing for the theatre to use as production photos. Took the photos, edited, and handed them over. Now all of my photos have my copyright in the metadata and a copyright watermark on every photo I have handed them. Including the ones I took of the sets 6 months ago.

    He is now asking the question as to whether I have copyright over these photos because I was technically on the clock for the theatre. I politely told him nothing has been signed, I haven’t given any rights to anyone and as the photographer I still hold the copyright although I will allow them to publish the photos with my permission. Again nothing has been signed at this point.

    He is currently talking with the town council about their policy of because I am an employee of the town all copyright belongs to them. I said politely that photography wasn’t part of my job description therefore the town has no claim on my photography. I told him that I will hold copyright on all photos taken until such time as a contract is placed in front of me to sign.

    It’s a pickle I know, we’re trying to solve it so everyone wins but I’m just wondering if I still hold the copyright even though I am employed by them? I don’t want to lose the opportunity to shoot there but I’m not about to get screwed over it either.

    Cheers Michelle.

    • Jeff Levy

      First of all you never signed anything so you haven’t given your copyright away. You can strengthen your position and ensure your copyright by submitting copies of the images to to the US Copyright Office, http://www.copyright.gov/. Technically a work needs to be registered for its copyright to hold up in court.

  16. Matt Willson

    I have been shooting concert photography for 5 years now and I have so much work that I’d like to sell. Is this legal if NO ONE has made me sign any contracts? I have contacted some artists and they all scream lawsuit when I talk about getting their licensing approval. Can I sell posters of my work from concerts showing artists and not get sued if NO ONE had me sign any contract? Any advice on this would be amazing!!! Great article!!!!

    • Haley

      I really want to know about this too… I was recently threatened by a band’s lawyer about selling their photos. But I never signed any agreements, heck, nothing was ever mentioned about my rights with the photos. Can they really do anything about it if I sell prints of my work?

  17. Steven Leonard Schwartz

    I took photographs of a rock n roll hall of famed from the third row at a large hotel/casino concert hall in las vegas. I am publishing a poetry/photographic book in a few months and would like to include some of these photos. I have an email from the performer’s manager that states he doesn’t care what I do with the photos or my poetry (I can do what I want basically) but the performer will not approve nor disapprove (providing permission) for me to publish them. He didn’t say no-you can’t do this. What I’m concerned about is the back of the ticket says no camera, no photos, even though everyone was doing it and the facility took no effort to stop it. Do I need approval from the facility to publish photos in my book? or just do it.


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