Are you violating copyright using photography on your social media sites?

Social media allows for easy sharing of content across multiple channels. Although NARI members are taking advantage of the branding opportunities that social media provides, they can be violating copyright laws as well.

Treve Johnson Photography likes when clients, such as 2M Architecture (which remodeled this kitchen), use his photographs on their social media sites, as long as his firm is credited.

Treve Johnson Photography likes when clients, such as 2M Architecture (which remodeled this kitchen), use his photographs on their social media sites, as long as his firm is credited.

As demand increases for use of professional photographers to build online portfolios, there are a few things to keep in mind in the Wild West culture of social photo sharing and branding.

Copyright clarified

Copyright goes into effect the moment someone takes a photo—he/she is the owner , and the photo rights belong to them for at least 70 years past death.

Copyright laws don’t apply when photos are deemed “fair use,” or the nature of the photo is not intended to violate copyrighted work, or has a potential effect on the market. An example of this would be a personal photo containing a work of art in the background; though the art is copyrighted, it was not the intended focus of the photo. Another copyright exception is for photos taken by government employees, which are classified as U.S. government works.

However, individuals can overcome copyright laws when a photographer is compensated for taking a particular photo. Two scenarios include:

  1. Photos taken by payrolled employees are not protected by copyright laws for the photos they take in the course of employment—in that case, the employer is considered the author. A common example would be a newspaper photographer. It’s possible for a corporation to own the rights to a photo authored by a contract employee, as long as the photographer has signed a work for hire agreement or has transferred copyright to the company, also in the form of a written/signed agreement.
  2. Independent photographers can award usage of photos through licensing. The licensing of photos permits individual usage of the photo under defined purpose, time or place.

The remodeler/photographer relationship likely falls under the second scenario, where remodelers are subject to licensing fees, and most of all, stipulations of specific use of the photos in the licensing agreement.

Licensing agreement do’s and don’ts

Treve Johnson, owner of Treve Johnson Photography based in Berkeley, Calif., became a full-time photographer in 2001. With a special eye for architecture and landscapes, one of his remodeler clients suggested he join the San Francisco Bay Area NARI chapter five years ago to bring in new clients.

The chapter has provided him opportunities to educate his fellow chapter members on photography legalities.

“When a remodeler hires me to photograph a project, I write a proposal for single-party usage of the photos and stipulate how they can use them,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s typical licensing agreement will include stipulations regarding:

  • Geographical distribution of photos (local vs. national advertisement/use)
  • Duration of licensing (photos taken for real estate purposes will have shorter durations than remodeling photos, which are mostly labeled in perpetuity)
  • Types of media (Website, print, social media, awards; editorial use must be licensed independently)
  • Shared use of photos (photos cannot be shared and used by others involved in a project for the same purposes as the remodeler. For example, if the architect intends to use the photos, he/she must license them independently)
  • Resale of photos (licensed photos cannot be resold by anyone but the author)
  • Accreditation (photos must be accredited to the author in all uses)

Johnson’s licensing agreements vary slightly from client to client. “I try to distinguish how the client intends to use the photos, [and adjust accordingly],” he says. Generally, he is flexible with how remodelers use the photos as long as they’re credited with his name, since they do not pose a high copyright infringement threat, say as photos taken for a national advertisement.

The biggest issue is the sharing of photos with others involved in the remodeling project. Johnson rearranges the price structure when multiple parties are involved, actually making the photo shoot more economical for all parties. “I encourage remodeling clients to give me the names of others involved, and I will try to get multiple parties on board in the beginning,” he says.

If he finds illegal use of the photos from a vendor, he tries to make the situation a positive one by negotiating a deal to have them purchase the photos and, hopefully, turning them into a client.

If things get more serious, Johnson always can fall back on his photo registrations, which he updates for all photos twice a year.

When Johnson photographs private property, he adds another layer of protection, requiring the homeowner to sign a release form, allowing him to use the photos for additional revenue. In return for signing the release, the homeowners are given licensing rights to use the photos as well. This not only protects Johnson’s use of the photos if the property were to change hands in the future, but also, potentially opens him to large advertisement opportunities from product manufacturers.

Social media and the photo sharing craze

“I think social media has had a huge impact on use and misuse of photos,” Johnson says. “There is a whole generation of people who have become accustomed to downloading music and clicking on photos and saving them.”

The ease in which people upload photos online and the sheer number of social sites and sharing buttons has contributed to the problem in the last few years. Despite all this, Johnson says he encourages his clients to share, post, Tweet and blog, text or e-mail his photos—as long as they have the proper credit.

“Some photographers work by the premise that the copyright is the cash cow and that they should protect the use of their photos at any cost,” Johnson says. “But social marketing and the sharing of photographs could be effective in bringing more visibility to my work and generate more business.”

His open perspective to copyright issues is a balanced approach for his business, in maintaining compensation for his work and building his company’s online presence. “It [social media] has been more beneficial [than harmful] to me. I’ve gotten several inquiries from Houzz,” he says.

Less online restrictions could be beneficial to his clients as well. “One remodeler got a job from a homeowner that placed a photo on Facebook, and a friend of the homeowner hired the remodeler,” Johnson says.

Whereas copyright provides the backbone of Johnson’s business, social media provides the growth factor for the business over the long-term.

“The biggest thing I see happening in the contracting industry is an increase in demand for higher-quality photography. Five years ago, a contractor may have gotten by with point-and-shoot photos, but Websites like Houzz have raised the bar. Clients are much more social media savvy, and quality is needed to compete—there’s no more room for mediocrity,” Johnson says.  –Morgan Zenner

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