The photography universe is facing a number of threats on a scale I’ve not seen in my lifetime. When I began, there were relatively few photographers. Now with digital, everyone is a shooter, and schools are graduating thousands yearly, all hoping for a life in photography. Competition is beyond fierce.

Statistically 1 in every 500 graduating photography majors will make it.

The biggest threat remains the gradual demise of copyright and our ability to license our images. Since the US Constitution gave creators the power of copyright, culture has flourished as artists have been able to feed their families while creating, books, paintings, photography, etc. A creative life was sustainable. The system worked beautifully for two centuries and everyone in society benefited.

With the advent of digital technology, and the past two decade-long corporate push to crush photographer’s copyright trade practices, the model is broken and will surely die soon, unless photographers unify and fight back. That’s as likely as herding the proverbial cats…. still it’s a shocking thing to see photographers slitting their own throats. That’s partly due to ignorance and fear—young shooters are not taught the value of copyright and existing trade practices and say yes to whatever terms they are offered just to break in—and older shooters say yes to bad terms out of very real need not to starve to death. I get it. And clearly the music industry was first, while film and photography is getting hit now.


I ask everyone I meet this question and have yet to get an answer that makes any sense in the last year or so. Creating apps is cool, and being a consultant is cool, and those things might even get you some money. But they are not photography. These activities are not rewarding you directly for a photograph you created.

Commercial photography is broken and will not sustain the number of people trying to get in. The days of getting paid 15K per ad for even a new shooter are over. Everyone is working for less and agreeing to give up their rights without being paid for them just to keep working. Clients care nothing for quality, only the lowest price of a triple bid.

Editorial photography is broken and also is overwhelmed with young shooters and the already jam packed older mob of experienced shooters. There are just not enough outlets for all the work with the massive decline of newspapers and magazines, and they are paying less and less and rights are also a big issue with online and overseas.

Fine Art is actually doing pretty well. Here, the model holds. Artists get paid for their photographs as they always have. This area is also inundated with young hopefuls so the competition for this area is a fierce as the others but the model is holding. No gallery is giving away pictures yet as far as I know. So here’s some good news at least

CHAOS: So we have a perfect storm now with the confluence of these factors: gazillions of hungry, young shooters lacking basic business skills or awareness of how copyright could help them; the economic downturn and necessity of corporations to cut costs, along with their two decade push to crush copyright; and the advocacy of many leading digerati pushing a line about the brave new world that demands artists give up their rights and share their work freely.

First, the young and innocent: a generation has grown up downloading music and images and content for free. They feel entitled to this free content, it’s how they were raised. Many who now want to be photographers probably had one or both parents involved in the arts. Some of them probably grew up in houses paid for by the copyrighted content their parents created. Now that these kids want to make a living in photography they don’t realize the connection between say, not accepting a buy out, or accepting a fee well below accepted trade practice, and their long term ability to earn a living. I had the benefit of my elders, Jay Maisel, Greg Heisler, Elliott Erwitt and many others, strongly impressing on me the incredible power of owning my work and licensing it over and over could have. I paid for houses, put my kid through private school and sustained my personal projects through this simple privilege granted by the founding fathers. Why would I give it up?

The economic reality of running a photography studio is such that the fees you earn typically end up just barely covering your overhead. The nature of cash flow is such that by the time you get paid for a given job you need to pay old bills so that income disappears quickly. Hard to pull out profit. But when  check comes in for re-use and additional licensing, hey, it’s easy to sock that away. The real profit comes from whatever mark-ups can be found, but mostly from re-use. It has been extraordinary. And now almost every job comes with a request to hand over all rights with 0 compensation. They usually say they are sorry but they have some kid in Ohio willing to give up all rights without payment. You can’t compete with that. But at the same time that kid is getting a job that pays once, gets him through the month, but ultimately that model is unsustainable over the long term. Trust me.

As for the economic downturn, it is very understandable that this has impacted corporations and they need to cut costs. But it’s hard to accept knowing that most company profits are actually up right now and they are sitting on piles of cash. Something is rotten in the system for sure. But going back to the early 90’s, it was suggested by Bill Gates at the TED Conference to 500 CE0’s and execs of the leading technology, entertainment, and design companies (hence the name TED), that in the future no one should ever pay more than 50 bucks for a photo. Well that dream sure is coming true. I don’t underestimate the power of Bill’s words to influence corporate America. And until very recently, most corporations resisted that statement because they understood that the value of the quality of the images was intrinsic to the success of their marketing. They needed quality and were willing to pay for it. Thus they respected the existing trade practices. That has faded fast and most corporations now are pushing their ad agencies and design firms to request buyouts, without compensation, as a requirement for their work. Of course this makes no sense because the average life span today of a marketing director is around 18 months or less. So that person will be gone soon and the new person will probably want new creative. So they don’t need a buyout, except perhaps to prevent others from using the images. That is a valid concern in some cases and usually can be alleviated with proper compensation or protecting certain images. But a blanket buyout edict is unfair and will eventually destroy their own options for talent. The ultimate endgame of their strategy will result in thousands of photographers leaving the field, giving clients less creative choice. Then the pendulum of supply and demand may swing back giving photogs some new leverage. One can hope.

Photogs with brand names still can exert some leverage, but that’s diminishing as agencies and creatives have less control and power over their corporate masters who demand cheap. Agencies have lost most of their best revenue streams, so they have to cut costs since most are now public companies and the pressure is immense. This has diminished the role of creative directors also. They are our natural allies in this fight, yet we are a long way from recognizing that.

But there is another group pushing against copyright. The digerati elite. Why do so many people in the tech industry, and the young people who embrace their products, feel that copyright is an anachronism, an irritation, and worse? I guess everyone likes a good deal. These mindbenders, some are good friends of mine, seem to believe the world would be a better place if creators stopped trying to control their work. They think it’s futile to do so anyway since in the digital age it can be taken, so why not join the party and give all your work away? They are pushing for free everything, including software. Notice that many of these people made millions through sale of software in the first place. Notice that they and companies like Microsoft are not advocating giving away their own intellectual property while it’s still a cash cow. All the major software companies have investigators out trying to stop software pirating, just like the music industry. Oh, the hypocrisy.

Many digerati often propose that something like Creative Commons is a good solution and that copyright law goes too far. Libraries are up in arms and want pass the Orphan Works bill. Well, I donate pictures to libraries, students and non-profits and I think most photographers do as well, so that’s not really legitimate. Again, show me a compelling substitution for my ability to license my work, which allows me to feed my family, and I’ll consider it. I work very hard to donate my work and time to give back to my community so that’s not the issue. The basic ability of photographer’s to earn a living is at stake and giving the work away free just means no income.

But the scariest talk to come out of my friends in the digital world is the idea that someday computers will gain consciousness and when they do we’ll just jack in, upload our brains and leave our bodies behind. We’ll all be part of the hive mind. Sharing everything. No need at all for copyright or individual rights. Did these people not see Star Trek? Wasn’t the Borg the enemy? The bad guys? Hello! I was raised by radical left wing parents, but jeez, this is wierd. My hippie/libertarian/free thinking genius friends have anticipated a world that can only be described as a totalitarian fascist nightmare. As Jared Lanier points out in his amazing book “You Are Not A Gadget” in this world, we will all be slaves to the borg, writing free wikipedia entries in our minds all day. There will be no creativity, thus no culture.

In other words, take away copyright and you destroy the individual. The rights of the individual are paramount in an open and free society. Without the individual artist’s right to sell what he or she creates, there will be no artists. So yeah, resistance may be futile, but no copyright=totalitarianism! That’s my new t-shirt.

My message to young photographers: the digital providers and corporate clients do not care about you or your future. Only you can save yourself.

IF no one can think of a new model – aside from say selling iPhone apps and basically NOT doing photography – then why don’t we start a movement to bring back copyright? Why don’t photographers band together to fight for our rights?

This is what the Magnum shooters fought for in the 50’s and the ASMP shooters did in the 70’s and so it’s not a new idea. It’s just that it seems that aside from ASMP and a few aging and vocal veterans, the new generation is oblivious to the dangers. I guess they think they will be the lucky ones, that they are so talented they can rise through the dross to get the few jobs available. After all, this is the generation that got an award just for showing up to soccer practice… The most coddled generation in human history. What can go wrong when they got everything handed to them? Maybe in a few years they will wake up, look in the mirror and say “you want fries with that?”

Ok, sorry! Am I attacking my own son’s generation unfairly? Am I partly responsible? Of course, but I’m also trying to get their attention.

The reaction to my criticism from my young friends, as far as I can tell, is not very practical. They continue low bidding jobs, or thinking that if they upload to Flickr enough someday they’ll be famous and that will somehow bring money. That blogging about whatever and giving their pictures away will make them some kind of expert and they can somehow convert that notoriety into… what… a consulting gig? Advertising on their blog? I’m just not sure what they believe is a sustainable model.

Maybe that’s the point of the new digital reality. There is no one new model. There may be dozens of potential models, and what works for one person won’t necessarily fit another. But I ask again, what is an example of a new model, any new model, that is a viable substitute for licensing? That can generate the kind of income we had before?

This is not only about tradition, principles or money, it’s about saving a culture and a beautiful way of life through photography. It has truly been a gift to have had the ability to do the work I loved and feed my family. I fear for those coming up.

January 2011
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30 Responses to NO COPYRIGHT = THE BORG.

  1. Mark says:

    Doug-Where did you get this number: “Statistically 1 in every 500 graduating photography majors will make it.” Seems a bit optimistic.

    I’ve always wondered if photographers can create a union that has collective bargaining power? How would that affect our copyrights?

    • admin says:

      Actually that number was given to me by a professor at Brooks fifteen years ago, so I agree it’s high now. Didn’t want to be toooo negative, ha. Re Union, there have been attempts… The ASMP tried to create a sort of union approach in the 70’s, setting pricing, and there were restraint of trade issues. But even the attempt created a strong understanding among shooters not to underbid each other and set standards that lasted a long time. So worth a try to see what can be done legally.

  2. Hi Doug,

    It strikes me that we are almost going back to a time where the only sustainable business model for a photographer/artist was that of seeking patronage.

    For instance, I shoot documentary weddings as part of my business. For those assignments, I am shooting directly for an end-client who has chosen to employ me to produce work solely for them. They like my work and the want me to deliver something to them in the same style.

    A second example: I’m approaching individual corporate clients with suggested book projects that are tailor-made to them. They too follow a patron pattern in many regards. These are projects, perhaps vanity projects in some ways, that connect directly with the end client in a way a normal commercial assignment doesn’t.

    I do recognize that this model doesn’t allow much scope for re-use rights. What it does do though is give photographers some kind of a business model that allows them to pursue clients with whom they have an affinity, and give them the chance to earn money actually taking photographs.

    What do you think?


    • admin says:

      Roger, very thoughtful and logical, I do agree with this and practice it myself. Done several projects where we sought and received corporate sponsorship allowing the book production and high quality printing. And this ties into the one area that is relatively stable, fine art. So Renaissance, here we come. Artitst and patron of the arts is the new/old model. So far this is the only one I’ve heard that makes any sense. No re-use but the patronage is probably enough if planned properly. Thanks for the response

      • Leigh says:

        I do feel that these issues shape the future of photography Giving away rights chips away the foundation that a photography business must have to stay strong. I it is hard not to look at the practices of some stock photography houses where the norm is to sell usage to an image for as low as $3 for a rights managed image. When clients are used to getting things for this price, it is hard to charge $7,000. Many artists are led to believe they should feel guilty for actually getting paid anything for doing their artwork. We are doing it for the love of it, right? Well we are also business owners plugging in countless hours running a high end business. We are also experts in our field (many of us having apprenticed/ assisted for years) just as any lawyer, or doctor. We should profit from the “product” we produce- we earn it justly.

        I find the idea of patronage being the future interesting, but question weather the new guarde of triple- bid clients will also offer the kind of loyalty (in the form of repeat business) that true patrons of the arts offer.

        Don’t know what the solution is. I love the idea of photographers bonding together but know they are a fiercely competitive bunch. There have been times when I wished that we had some sort of union. Then perhaps our prices and our rights would be protected.

        • admin says:

          for sure we are easy to manipulate and guilt is powerful. Every photographer has to educate themselves, stock up for the hard times and prepare to say no to whatever is not fair or against their best interests. You NEVER win a negotiation you are not prepared to walk away from. Right now we have little leverage. If everyone stops low ball bidding and giving away rights it might help for starters, but hard to imagine

  3. Freya says:

    Being a photographer and actually knowing your rights as a young photographer just isnt understood. As with a number of laws/rules surrounding photography, so many people are ‘never quite sure’ what their rights are. Any young photographers reading this should take a look at a great little book called ‘Beyond The Lens’ as it has certainly helped me get my head around what we should/need to do in order to, not only be given what we deserve, but to try and maintain a united front with regards to photographers copyright future.

    Thanks for your info.

  4. Doug! You continue to tell it like no one else can. The power to be a successful photographer and in turn help to continue to make a career in photography a viable profession does indeed lie with each individual photographer. We must all take responsibility when accepting jobs to not only consider the short term goal of putting food on the table this month, but to also consider whether our own actions will allow us to put food on the table in a year or five or ten years.

    I get so many questions from emerging photographers about pricing their work. Like many artists, photographers are keen on mastering their craft, but seem to be shy on the business aspects of what they are embarking upon. Blogs and articles like this one are so necessary to help keep the wheels from coming off our profession.

    I often pass on your wise advice from our time in Santa Fe of the business of Art and Commerce. One of those nuggets was that in order to be successful photographers routinely spend 70% of their time on the business of photography and 30% of their time on the photo making part of it.

    We need to talk with other photographers, join an organization like the ASMP and soak up any resources that can be obtained on the business of photography. Attend lectures. Take notes. The information is out there for all of us – both emerging and veterans alike.

    The key is to look at the long term. The only way to do this is to become very smart. All of us. Each individual photographer is responsible for what happens next- to all of us.

    Thanks again Doug for sharing your thoughts. Always appreciated and inspiring.


  5. Adam says:

    Hi Doug,

    I really appreciate this post. I can’t express the frustration/anger I feel when dealing in todays market, especially trying to work with ruthless rights-grabbing record labels. As a young photographer/cinematographer (27yrs – no art school training) I have had the opportunity to learn the business from the inside out at a young age … however this can’t be said about my friends who have graduated and know next to nothing about copyright and licensing. Its sad, scary and a bit infuriating that the schools would send them out into the world lacking business skills only to make the entire market weaker.

    With that being said, I fight for all I can, sometimes loosing more than I gain, and I feel if there was a platform for photographers to stand on we would have a better chance. I am actually kind of shocked that the more well-established veterans of the business haven’t put anything together in a more concrete way for all of our futures. Because the truth is we all really need to stand up together as photographers with clear goals!

    I can assure you that myself and my peers would stand behind and offer our time/ man power to support a Union or whatever that would set real precedent for us. I am so ready to wake people up … and take it to the man! However as you stated in your post “its hard to pull out profit” and thus hard to get on our feet (the man’s plan).

    We need help! Any help! I am ready.

    • admin says:

      Adam, man I hear you and feel for you, it’s definitely gotten a million times harder all around. Like I said there was a big push in the 70’s and also big pushback and legal issues around restraint of trade with photogs banding together. But times and laws have changed. Maybe there is a way to band together. The first step is education. Hang in there and stay tuned

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  7. admin says:

    please ck out the livebooks blog on my site and also “seeing money”
    good luck to you

  8. copyright not dead says:

    Interesting article.

    A couple of comments:

    Most importantly, copyright is not dead.

    In fact, it is very carefully taken care of…by consolidated large companies, effectively acting as cartels, against photographers.

    What seems to be dead is the ability for individual photographers to keep the copyright for their own work.

    Corporate cartels write the contracts, interpreting copyright as it fits best their own interest, exploiting the fact that it is a buyer’s market as never before. Even the smaller corporate players follow now the take-it-or-leave-it practices of the cartels, due to the unlimited supply of able and willing photographers.

    This oversupply is coming most importantly from demographics: exponential population growth, which effects basically all professions. The easier the entry barrier, the worse for a particular profession.

    Photography is especially hard hit, as anybody can be a photographer and technology makes it very inexpensive to create, collect, search/find, deliver photographs at acceptable quality.

    Obviously, there are still relatively few truly outstanding, gifted photographers – but the demand for truly outstanding, gifted work is in decline with the rapid transformation of the truly outstanding publishing.

    The past decade is the commodification of mass produced photographic images.

    That’s why fine art photography is basically the only area in good shape, without the least change. In this field retaining copyright is also the easiest.

    Somewhat better situation is personally commissioned photography (wedding), as well.

    The difficulty of creating professional unions (like writers, actors, cinematographers guilds) for editorial, corporate photographers comes again from the massive labor oversupply and concentrated, virtual cartel industries.

    But again, virtually all professions are facing the same difficulties.

    • admin says:

      Unfortunately your well-articulated clarification of my points underscores a looming truth– until photographers either overcome the obstacles to organizing or there is a massive winnowing of talent leading to more leverage, the power is out of our hands for the moment. This has been going on for a while, so maybe the solution will take as long.

  9. lxs says:

    Thank you for writing this. These “young” photographers need to value their work and see it as art. Maybe that is the problem, they don’t see it as that. Maybe they are missing an understanding of the fine arts, maybe they just see their images as digital files. Whatever it is there seems to be a disconnect between the images they produce and themselves.

  10. david says:

    Intellectual property is the future of our economy.

    I make a large amount of my income based on settlements from infringements. Settlements happen and they happen out of court. You will never hear about them unless they go to trial. Many of them you have to sign a NDA upon settlement.

    Register your work. Copyright is the biggest hammer a creative person can use.

    There is a whole generation of people stealing and they have no knowledge of copyright law at all. Go ahead and take it. When they get caught they pay.

    There are more photographers than ever before. That doesnt mean there are better and better photographs being made. Its quality, not quantity. The right clients pay for professional people and their work.

  11. Thomas says:

    I agree to your points about the the young and innocent and the digerati elite.
    Maybe we have to look to Apple’s/Jobs’ and Mr Murdoch’s ideas to get control of the content again. It’s just not an argument to reject their approaches by claiming to have a right to get everything for free. Photographers are in the very same boat as journalists even the underlying business model is different. The food chain is busted at the top – and you elaborated on that very well. Once we get sorted out to fix this, the little fishes ‘togs and journos will swim happily ever after.

    • admin says:

      here’s to the happy swimming! and yeah, i think we do need to look hard at the itunes model, at least some are paying. and i love that murdoch has pushed back and trying to get the horse back in the barn and paying for content….thanks

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  13. Joanne says:

    Hi Doug, just stumbled across this post…we don’t know each other but I believe know people in common. An excellent piece of writing. Really appreciate the final comments about “saving a culture and a beautiful way of life.” thanks for sharing this.

  14. Chris Lake says:

    HI Doug,

    After reading this post and posting it to my social networks last week I just had the opportunity to put the advice to good use. A new editorial client contacted me for a cover shoot but demanded copyright be included. I told them I wasn’t interested and explained why. The AD understood and was very sympathetic, telling me her hands were tied by her legal department, which I believe. She said the policy was making it difficult to find good photographers, which is tough for her (she’s a nice lady) but a promising sign that not everyone is rolling over to these copyright demands. Believe me, it’s tough to say “no.” We have a baby due any day and I sure could have used the money, but long-term this is definitely the right thing to do and I feel good about it. Thanks for doing what you do.

    • admin says:

      Chris, wow man, I appreciate the incredible sacrifice. I would never judge anyone accepting these insane terms, we all have to eat. Hopefully if we all pull together things can slowly swing back.

  15. Paul Treacy says:

    An idea just materialised in my head that might be worth expanding on.

    The fair trade industry is making great strides globally at the moment. My family and I buy as much fair trade products as we can rather of such things as peanuts, coffee, tea and the like.

    Growing up in impoverish Ireland in the 70s and 80s there was a movement to get Irish people, where possible, to buy Irish. There was a very effective little logo on Irish products that allowed for easy identification and people really got behind the endeavour. Think about the power of the Celtic Tiger in the 90s and 00s, much of which may have stemmed from this simple idea.

    We have dolphin friendly fish products. We have environmentally friendly products and logos.

    Perhaps it’s time we came up with a similar movement and logo system for each of our brand identities and products to make a bold statement to image buyers that we will NOT be manipulated into killing our own industry.

    What say you all?

    Right now I need some breakfast. Then I will think on it some more. Help me out.

  16. Paul Treacy says:

    That should have been “as much fair trade produce” or “as many fair trade products”. I don’t like making mistakes like that. Sorry.

    Perhaps a simple logo suggesting “in defence of ownership” or “defending my ©” or simply “defending ©”. Something that makes it clear to assigning editors and image buyers that we will make a stand. That we value all our rights to ownership. If enough people use this logo on their paper work, websites, business cards and the like, the message may well get through.

    I always think a bold, simple visual reference for an idea will help it spread. All ideas and suggestions welcome. I will write to clever people at PhotoShelter and others to see if they can help take this idea further.

    Paul Treacy

    • Doug Menuez says:

      BRILLIANT. Symbols have power. They represent ideas. Ideas can lead to action. This is worth some thought.

  17. Theo. Bennett says:

    Easy up Doug..!

    Are you part of the problem…?

    As am I….?

    And so many of us who insist we are artisans working with our hands in the way of Caxton, Lumiere and the cave dwellers who produced their petroglyphs?

    Is the persistent denial of art in journalism and photography an adolescent smite against Wolfe and Mann?

    Sure, we have all genuflected before the Door when we saw proclaimed the articles proclaiming the death of conventional vertical media.

    There were dismissive and devaluing sneers that followed any who dared point out that the Digital Kings were perhaps not really wearing new clothes, and there might still be something in the old ways of literary journalism and photomedia art.

    At what have the new tech Versailles Tuilleries fishwives been cackling as the guillotine blade has fallen on the analogue aristocracy? Has their rasp and cackle been more something of nervous relief that they have now escaped having to put in the hard metres of work needed to achieve a level of expertise that equates to art?

    Are the ever sneering trend following cynics chest beating to end all tactile paper print, tempered media, mountable prints, dye-transfer film, vinyl records and….. And… But, no..! Surely not in the same breath repeating yet again that hoary scare heard so often when debate and all reason fail, the eventual dominance of machine over human intelligence, of white Kork-casian computers uber alles…?

    Gosh..! Would Sir Charles Chaplin have been delighted to read your echo that computers will inevitably reign?

    Would HG Wells have been tickled..?

    Would Aldous Huxley have been “eyeless” – even while horizontal….?

    The facility of horizontal media, the blather of too many mindless blogs, the Onanism of that part of social media which serves the ego of the author, but
    does little or nothing for the reader who, having “hit” briefly, tastes, and quickly moves on like a pre-pubescent child in search of ever new baubles.

    Bemoaning the state of things while applauding Gates and Zuckerberg and the
    I/T oligarchs who have not given us a better mousetrap” as much as a flawed vehicle. They have reaped admiration because they have taken huge profits from us, but they have failed to really deliver,

    You pose the same old questions we have been long asking.

    You cite contemporary speculative science fiction as a gospel.

    But is this an answer…? Perhaps not, when you accept, like William Faulkner, the lessons and the predictions, probable solutions, lie not in the worship of the new, but respect for the past which is forever the present.

    Should it be so if we are to hope for a positive answer….?

    The foundation of what you bemoan was identified by Aristotle and Demosthenes, Ovid and Thaddeus, Teillhard and Wells, Huxley and Orwell.

    But still nobody wants to know because they are all “analogue”.

    The old has no value. Only the new god digitalis has fiscal merit.

    Here’s a thought: We could try education, liberal arts inclusive along with the now fashionable actuarial and I/T ‘engineering’ sciences and corporate law.

    This might even help the copyright lawyers make firm their case.

    And we could try accepting something to which you have referred here, the acceptance finally by all of us of fine literature and fine arts in publishing.

    That is something that cannot be mulched mindlessly on the Interweb, or readily
    disgorged by too many facile bloggers.

    Sure, it means working obliquely if you like, accepting Sun Tsu’s philosophy of traveling a parallel strategic course to achieve a target. But if by adopting a course equally horizontal to that of the digitally obsessed, we can achieve even greater things with genuine craft, then so be it.

    However, it will surely mean abandoning the velvet-arsed pretence that we are ‘above’ art in our craft?

    – Theo. Bennett

    • Doug Menuez says:

      On your main points at the end, I couldn’t agree with you more. And all big trends wax and wane,they come and go but meaningful work, quality endures….d

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