Saturday, June 10, 2006

Here’s Something To Think About

This was the President's Message I wrote for the Spring, 2006 issue of "Exposure," ASMP-NJ's quarterly magazine

"Here’s Something To Think About"

“If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight,
If you must return if you can send it here,
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer.”

So wrote John Lennon and Paul McCartney in their hit song, “Paperback Writer.” Had they known, as Merle Haggard says he learned early on in his song-writing career, that one must retain and control all rights to one’s creations in order to have a secure retirement, they’d never have uttered those words, save maybe for poetic license.

Look at what happened to The Beatles. They were the most popular and influential band of their time, perhaps of all time, and yet ten years into the project they were broke. Their work product was not under their direct control. In fact, it’s owned today by Michael Jackson (it’s okay, Paul McCartney learned how to play the game, he bought Elvis Presley’s catalog!). To make the money they required to sustain their lifestyles they needed to shut down the corporation and start fresh, every man for himself.

At the time off this writing, Sting is raking in over $2000 per day from just one song, “Every Move You Make.” Can you imagine it: $730,000.00, almost three quarters of a million dollars each year from just one song, and that’s not to mention all of the other hit songs he’s written and recorded with, or since he left, The Police. Holy cow! Two grand a day from just one song. Wow! I wish I’d practiced my guitar a bit more diligently. Probably needless to say, I also wish I’d learned to throw a fastball at 95 MPH with pinpoint accuracy, but that’s not as sustainable as writing and recording hit songs with a hot rock ‘n’ roll band.

Can photographers make this kind of money? Can our futures be as secure as Ringo’s, as Sting’s, as Linda Ronstadt’s, as Billy Joel’s, as Sheryl Crow’s, as Don Henley’s? As Weird Al Yankovic’s? The short answer is YES, ours can indeed. But how?

Well, the first part of how-to is establishing a style that’s commercially viable, and ‘commercially viable’ can be just about anything these days. The second part of how-to is being incredibly prolific, you’ve got to always be shooting. The third part is in building, or contracting for, a far-reaching distribution system... preferably automated and e-commerce enabled (ASMP has a program for that). The fourth part of this how-to is the key: retaining your rights in your work!

I’ve heard a lot about work-for-hire lately. Clients are increasingly demanding all rights in the images they commission, and, really, who can blame them? They’ve been advised by their legal departments to do so, but the question remains: do your clients really need to own all possible rights in your images?

Photographers complain about this on an almost daily basis, whether they call me, write to me or write to the various online forums I subscribe to. I’m hearing about it all the time.

I’ve even lost a couple of assignments recently to other photographers who were willing to give in to their client’s request for all rights, and that’s somewhere I’m not quite prepared to go. I’ll wager that you fall into one of the two groups yourself. Group A is photographers who give it all away and Group B is photographers who wish to retain all rights (you can feel free to switch those around if you have a particular affinity for either A or B as a letter).

ASMP as an organization is very strong on advocating that you retain your rights in your work. On the other hand, you need to put a roof over your head and food on your table, and you may even need to be able to send a child (or two) to the university in the near future. When faced with the choice of working and giving it all away, or not working but retaining your rights in your work... oops, if you haven’t worked then there’s nothing for you to retain, is there?

Okay, here we have a problem: How do we reconcile our need to eat and our need to retain our rights? Is it possible to do so in a declining market? What’s the strategy for accomplishing all of our goals in this regard?

The solution lies in education. And photographer education, especially as regards work-for-hire, is going to be a major initiative of the New Jersey Chapter in the near term so please stay tuned.


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