A Primer on Photo and Video Copyright Usage


There’s a news item making its way around the interwebs about a popular blogger who was recently sued by a photographer for using the photographer’s photo on her blog without proper rights. As this blogger points out in her post, it was done without malicious intent. Like so many other bloggers, she grabbed an image from Google images, gave attribution, and made sure to let readers know it wasn’t her photo. When the photog contacted her with a cease and desist, she apologized and immediately took it down. Regardless, the photographer still sued her for copyright infringement and she apparently had to pay a rather high settlement. Ouch!

As many of you reading this are visual artists yourselves, you undoubtedly have a vested interest in this topic. I’m sure a number of you have had your photos used without your permission and cases like this are encouraging. You see it as move in the right direction to finally give photographers their due.

Then again, some of you are of the Trey Ratcliff mindset about getting your work out there, sharing it freely, and building “tribes” around your content, as opposed to suing people for it. In which case, you may be put off by the fact this photographer sued the blogger in this particular case.

There are good arguments on each side of the debate. Regardless of where you stand, it goes without saying that you should obey the laws and respect the copyrights of others.

Good Business

But it also raises the question about how you should manage your own copyrights. This applies to filmmakers and videographers too. How would you feel if you found out a video of yours was downloaded and used at a major conference or seminar, but you got no attribution or payment? If you’re a photographer, how would you feel if a photo you let a “friend” use for a project helps that friend get the equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising exposure in a major magazine?

To be smart business people in this industry, these are questions you should ask yourselves. Do you have a licensing plan in place should someone give you a call about using your photo? How much would you charge? What rights would you give? (Nationwide? Worldwide? Print? TV? Internet?) What if someone contacted you about using a video for stock footage. Are you prepared for that? You should be.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve handled it:

  • I frequently get asked by churches and various human trafficking non-profits to use my “NUMBERS” PSA. I got asked so many times, I updated my Vimeo description to give permission on how organizations can use it. Just last week I got an email about this.
  • I’ve been contacted a few times for clips from videos I’ve produced to be used in other educational DVDs and documentaries. For a few seconds of video I’ve charged $450 for a worldwide, non-transferrable license (these were relatively small runs).
  • A few years ago we licensed a personal photo my wife took that a publisher overseas wanted to use on the cover of a book they were printing. The license was $750 and was just for printing in that country.
  • As a blogged about earlier, I have built into my agreements that unless purchased or otherwise negotiated as part of their agreement, my company retains copyrights to all raw footage we shoot.

I know your next question: “How much to charge?” Well, there is no formula. You can charge whatever you want. There are programs like Blinkbid that can help you. You should also check out American Society of Media Photographers licensing guide. You can bite the tip of your pinky finger and charge “one meellion dollars” for all I care. But at least have a plan.


As many of you are also bloggers, or active on social media sites like Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook, you need to cover your butt when it comes to finding and sharing photos. Here are the top five suggestions for making sure you don’t find yourself in the same position as the aforementioned blogger.


  • Do a search on Creative Commons  for photos that have licenses that allow you to use them. Check the appropriate boxes at the top if you want to use photos commercially.
  • Buy a photo from a popular stock footage site like Shutterstock or iStockPhoto.
  • If you find a photo on a site like Pinterest that doesn’t appear to have any Creative Commons licenses associated with it, take initiative and contact the photographer directly and request permission. It goes without saying to get it in writing.
  • Do NOT pin photos on Pinterest or post them on Instagram if you are unsure of the licensing rights. (It should be noted that if you post a photo on one of these sites, under their Terms of Service (TOS) agreements, you give the right not only for the site to use your photo commercially, but you may also be giving the rights for others to use your photo in various contexts. As TOS agreements are frequently changed, check what they are to be sure. If you find a photo on one of these sites you’d like to use, don’t just assume the person who posted it originally owns the original copyright. Do some digging and confirm they do.
  • If you’re not sure, air on the side of caution and just don’t post the photo.
  • Last and certainly not least, use your own photos. (Duh!)

Do you have any experiences with photography or filmmaking copyrights you’d like to share?

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney nor do I play one on TV. This information is not given as legal advice, but is just a journalistic report of information I’ve culled from the internet.

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