Q&A: How To Get (Or Give) Permission to Use a Copyrighted Work

Lake Tahoe Snow SceneQ. I work for a Conservation Commission. Occasionally, we receive and would like to use photos with our feature stories or news releases. Is obtaining a photographer’s permission to use a photo via e-mail correspondence sufficient or do we need a more defined written permission? If the photographer is a minor, do we also need a responsible adult’s consent?

A. A copyright owner may grant a non-exclusive license orally, but getting the license in writing, including email correspondence, is better. Putting agreements in writing prevents misunderstandings by spelling out the terms of a deal, forces parties to clarify their thinking, consider problems that could potentially arise, and encourages them to take their promises seriously because it’s harder to backtrack on a written contract than on an oral one. Try to include the who, what, why, when, and where info about the use, such as: “Jane Doe, photographer and copyright owner, grants to the Conservation Commission the one-time usage rights of the photo of the grizzly bear sleeping on the beach for the cover of the January 2010 issue of “Wildlife” magazine for $2,000 with the photo credit of ‘Copyright 2010 Jane Doe’ included in the magazine’s masthead.” If the photographer is a minor, then be sure to get the photographer’s parent or guardian to authorize the license since minors may later void the license or contract.

As the uses of your photography get more complicated and/or you desire more protection for your work, you may need more extensive licensing with specific terms and conditions. For further information on licensing, check my June 2, 2005, blog entry, ASMP’s Licensing Guide & Paperwork Share and Terms and Conditions Tutorial, Richard Weisgrau and Victor Perlman, Esq.’s book, “Licensing Photography,” Tad Crawford’s book, Business and Legal Forms for Photographers,” or John Harrington’s book, “Best Business Practices for Photographers.”

Licenses to use copyrighted works are just a modern twist on the the old game of “Mother, May I?”  So be sure to ask “Photographer, may I” or to provide a written “Yes, you may” when getting or giving permission to use a copyrighted work.

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