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Know your rights.

(I can’t post to my blog without putting photos, so while the photos today are completely irrelevant to the post I must do as I must. As always, click on the photo to see it larger).

I don’t write today to give you a list of what your rights might be, but to alert and remind you that you do have rights. Most importantly, to remind you what may happen if you forget to exercise some moderate degree of care with your rights.


This is how I do it.

I came across a photo competition announcement recently which someone sent to me because they know my photographs would be a fit for the competition; photos of Guyana. I took a look and read the terms and conditions of entering and was shocked to see that they presume to acquire all rights from the entrant to all of their entries whether they win or not.

The first thing that occurred to me was the moral wrongness of taking someone’s work, even if they are not wary of their rights as I, or other serious hobbyists might be. What the competition organisers are doing is taking your work; and if you don’t win the competition, you are getting nothing in return. No compensation, no reward, nothing.

If you are simply walking around with your camera taking nice snapshots you may well be wondering why you should care what happens with your photo. Let me give you a scenario: You are a devout muslim, you practice your religion and believe in its tenets. You take a photo of a beautiful, typically Caribbean scene which you show to all your family and friends and, having received some praise, you decide to enter it into this competition.


City Hall in the afternoon.

It does or does not win, but 6 months later you see the same photo being used by a liquor company to advertise a particular brand of alcohol. Can you object? Protest? Take back your picture? Nope, you have surrendered all your rights to that photo to the organisers of the challenge.

This is only one possibility, there are too many others to count. But what it comes down to is not a matter of money, or selling your photos, or profiting in any way. This is about control. You lose control absolutely of something you created. It can then be used in any way the organiser sees fit without your having any say in the matter. Would you like to give up control of the last picture you took of your grandmother before her death? How about the picture of your son catching a ball for the first time? These may only be snapshots, and you have many copies so physical loss of one is not important to you.

But loss of control is the important issue. Loss of the ability to say who can see your picture, or how it can be used, or even who it can be sold to. You may well want to give the photo away so that all can freely use your photo. You don’t get to make that choice anymore, once you have given away control.

Do not assume that this is a narrow topic related only to photo competitions. The ease of sharing photos in digital formats online has serious implications with respect to your rights. One story that may have escaped most people is that of Daniel Morel.

When the Haiti earthquake hit in January this year there was immediate and huge demand for photographs. Daniel Morel was one of the photographers who started documenting things immediately and uploaded his photos via twitpic. The links to the pictures on twitpic were then distributed via twitter. Twitpic’s terms and conditions of usage at that time maintained the copyright and ownership of the photos in the creator. Twitter, on the other hand assumes a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license, with the right to sub-license others, to use, copy, publish, display and distribute whatever is posted. One news agency took his pictures, mistakenly or intentionally applied twitter’s terms to the photos and used them for their own benefit without credit to David Morel.

Had Morel posted on twitter he might have indeed lost control of the use of his photos, as the terms provide. As it is, he has become engaged in litigation over the misuse of his images. The full story is here.

The point of all of this is, you need to know and be mindful of what you do with your property. The consequence of not being mindful is the possibility that you may, in the worse case, end up having to go to litigation to reassert your rights, and nobody wants to go to litigation. Trust me on this.


Enjoying the afternoon breeze at the Kingston Promenade

My focus (if you will pardon the pun) is obviously on photography, but you have to be wary of any type of work you surrender into the hands of another, particularly electronically. Your blog posts, your emails, your tweets, your photos; whatever it happens to be. If you genuinely do not care what happens, I hope you do not regret it later, but be knowingly careless, not unknowingly. In other words, do what YOU want with your property, don’t make the mistake of unknowingly allowing someone to make the choice for you.

On a final note, I find the organisers of that competition I mentioned earlier to be highly immoral and unethical. Their competition will probably be entered by laymen and young people who are not likely to careful of their rights as a professional photographer, or a serious hobbyist who happens to be a lawyer (like me). Thus, the entrants are far less likely to be cognizant of the need to read the terms and conditions of entry.

At the very least those organisers should have made it clear, in bold type, what it is they are taking from the entrants. Or better yet, not try surreptitiously to steal the rights of the people who will enthusiastically participate without proper warning. I’ve seen the terms of a lot of competitions online and while many of the more draconian ones acquire the rights for the winner’s photograph; this is the first time I’ve seen the operators of a competition take the rights of ALL entrants whether they win or not.

If you know someone arranging a competition or see unfair terms attached to a competition, ask the organisers to take a look here, and use terms that are fair for everyone.


School Day.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Michael Lam says: September 3, 2010

    A most enlightening post. As a hobbyist, my rights as a photographer is not something that jumps to the fore of my thinking, but you are right, losing control is not something I want to do.

  2. Dom says: September 3, 2010

    Very interesting and true. I love taking pictures as well unfortunately I have not been able to develop that art and passion as I would have liked but never the less, I have never entered into any of those art or picture capture competitions for that very reason you are writing about. My pictures are my pictures and I should be able to say what can or cannot happen with them… unless of course I’m being paid to give up my rights on my picture(s).


Websites mentioned my entry.

  1. Knowing Your Rights « The Michael Lam Collection's Blog

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