How to License Photos (It's Much Easier Than You Think!)

March 23, 2015

The verb “license,” according to Merriam-Webster, means “to give official permission to someone . . . to do or use something.” As a noun, license means “an official document, card, etc., that gives . . . permission to do, use, or have something.”

Licensing your photographs may sound tricky, but in fact we “license” other things all the time. Take this, for example:

Kid: Can I borrow the car?

Parent: Where are you going?

Kid: To the park.

Parent: Why?

Kid: To play tennis with Taylor.

Parent: When will you be back?

Kid: By 5 p.m.

Parent: O.K.

With that “O.K.,” the parent just licensed the car to the kid only to go the park to play tennis with Taylor that day until 5 p.m.

And licensing your photographs to others can be just as simple. Here’s how:

Rights of the Copyright Owner

Copyrights give the owner the exclusive right to do, or to authorize others to do, specific things with their photographs. Copyright law effectively gives you, the copyright owner, a legal monopoly on the use of that image. Specifically, when you own the copyright to a photograph, you have the sole right to:

  • reproduce the copyrighted work;
  • display the copyrighted work publicly;
  • prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work; and
  • distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental or lending.

These are known as the “exclusive rights,” and you may assign, sell, transfer, or give them away. When you assign, sell, transfer, or give others only some of your exclusive rights (not the entire copyright), you are licensing them.

Creating a license

To create a license, think about the “five Ws”: who, what, when, where, and why. In the above example, “you” is the who; “borrow the car” is the what; “the park” is the where; “today until 5 p.m.” is the when; “to play tennis with Taylor” is the why.

To license the copyright for one of your photographs, for instance, you could say: “I grant to the ABC Company (who) the right to reproduce my photograph of the sleeping grizzly bear (what) for the August 2015 issue (when) on the cover of “Wildlife” magazine (where). The “why” could be money—for example, “for $1,000,” and/or “with the photo credit of ‘Copyright 2015 Jane Doe’ included in the magazine’s masthead.”

Licenses for copyrights are designed to exclude. If the use isn’t explicitly included in the license, then the user doesn’t have the right to use your photograph in any other way. Therefore, it can be good to include “all other rights are reserved” in your license.

Your license shouldn’t be different for a friend’s use of your photo. If you want to share your images with friends, tell them that the photos are for personal use only and to let you know if they want to use them for anything else.

In addition, the nonprofit organization Creative Commons  offers free copyright licenses to “provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work—on conditions of your choice.” Creative Commons’ license terms can be customized to a certain extent and may help you to create a license to fit your needs.

Put the license in writing

Some photographers grant exclusive licenses so that only the licensee has the right to use their photograph in a certain way or for a certain time. Exclusive licenses must be in writing. You can grant non-exclusive licenses orally, but it’s best to put all licenses in writing. It minimizes confusion and gives you something concrete to rely upon if a dispute arises.

License checklist

When you license your photographs to others, consider including the following items:

  • Who are you giving the rights to?
  • What specific rights are you granting?
  • Are you authorizing print and/or electronic rights?
  • If you grant electronic rights, what kind? CD? Web?
  • For what time are you granting the rights?
  • Will the rights be exclusive?
  • How will the rights be used? In what market or industry?
  • What territory do the rights cover? North America? English-speaking countries? Worldwide?
  • Are there any work-for-hire implications?
  • How will you be paid? By a flat fee? By royalties?
  • If paid by royalties, how will the royalties be calculated?
  • When will you be paid?
  • Will you allow the user to alter your photograph for the use?
  • Will you require certain items to be included with the use? Copyright notice? Photo credit?
  • Do you want samples of the use?
  • Retain all other rights; you never know what future usage technology will bring.
  • Make the license subject to being paid in full: “No rights are granted to Client until Photographer has received payment in full.”

To be sure that every important aspect of licensing is addressed, ask an attorney who is familiar with these issues to review your license. Always having a license—especially a written one—is important for protecting your copyrighted work.

Want to learn more? Check out the LinkedIn Learning course Understanding Copyright: A Deeper Dive.