Why Do Publishers Want ‘All Rights’?

If you are a photographer working for publishers within an editorial environment you will be all too familiar with being pressured to sign contracts concerning the rights to your images. It is nothing new (I was regularly asked to get photographers to sign their rights away throughout the Nineties, something I always refused to do!) however publishers expectations and therefore the commissioners expectation today is that you will give them ‘all-rights’ every time you work for them.

Many publishers operate on the basis that if you don’t sign you will not get paid or in reality work for them. They believe that they hold the ‘whip hand’ and in many ways they do. However, I believe that it is important to understand where this expectation came from to be able to challenge such a contract.

It was during the ‘dot com boom’ when I was consulting on the creation of a venture capitalist backed daily online magazine (strange to think today what a revolutionary concept that was back in 2000) that I first had to explain to finance departments that budgets had to be allocated to create commissioned photography. “Why can’t we just take pictures off the BBC website?” they asked ignorant of any form of copyright or image ownership. Commissioning or buying photography had not been in their business plans and this proved to be a major hurdle to overcome to ensure the project’s success. One they never cleared.

Fast forward to 2010 and I found myself having similar conversations with finance departments within major publishing houses. With the drop in monthly magazine sales it had been decided that the future would be ‘magalogues’ and ‘bookazines’ hybrid, high priced products that would be created from pre-commissioned photography and text from a magazines back catalogue. A concept based on a financial departments understanding that because they had paid for photography and writing they owned them and could re-use them how often they wished for free.

It was at this point that publishers discovered that they didn’t own the pictures and their hybrid plans would cost them unexpected reproduction fees and the ‘all rights’ contract was introduced across the magazine industry. 

Alongside the mutant magazine concept came iPad digital editions and website usage. Again finance departments saw these as alternative revenue streams alongside their failing print editions and ‘all rights’ for any ‘digital use on any digital platform product or anything currently known, not known or maybe known in the future at some point for the rest of time’ was added to the contract.

Some publishers even saw themselves as potential photo agencies offering a ridiculously small percentage of potential sales in return for their under resourced syndication services. The reality of this has been that they actually ‘sell’ or most likely give away images to franchised sister titles worldwide without your knowledge.

So that’s a brief history of how we got to where we are today, but things have changed and this is how.

‘Bookazines’ and ‘magalogues’ didn’t sell in the expected volumes required to make them a viable financial proposition and digital editions never filled the gap left by falling advertising revenues. Website advertising also failed to be the great hoped for revenue saviour.

So why are publishers still trying to get you to sign away your rights? Well, it does make sense for publishers with international franchised editions to own your images (whether we agree with this or not, and of course I don’t!) but many magazines and publishers do not have these franchised brands or if they do the many franchised titles create their own local content.

This leaves many titles and publishers sitting on your work for absolutely no reason and by doing so preventing you from syndicating that work after it has been published. Add to this the fact that there are few areas of editorial work that don’t date over a period of a few years and the result is stored images that are unusable by the very magazines that commissioned them and unwanted by syndication agencies.

My suggestion is that the next time you are given such a contract you ask why they want your images on an ‘all-rights’ basis and what they are going to do with them once they have them. Let’s try and get publishers to question an unfair and out-dated practice that is being continued for no reason and with no or little understanding.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2016


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