LADY GAGA performing live at Glastonbury Festival 2009 on the Other stage, Somerset, England, UK. Friday 26th June 2009. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (born March 28, 1986), better known by her stage name Lady Gaga, is an American recording artist. At Interscope Records, she worked as a songwriter penning music for established artists, such as Akon. During the same time, she began to play her music in clubs throughout New York City. After Akon recognized that Gaga also had vocal talent, he signed her to a joint deal with his own label, Kon Live Distribution.
Photo © David J Colbran

Photographers have been shocked by Lady Gaga’s latest publicity stunt. Last week Washington news site TBD told how, when their photographer arrived to shoot the fame monster in concert, he was presented with a photo release assigning the copyright in his work to Gaga. After a brief call to his editors, who instructed him not to sign, the photographer packed his bags and left.

No concert review in TBD for Gaga then: instead the site took her to task for the attempted copyright grab in a two page article describing the contract as “audacious”, “predatory” and “not cool”.

TBD undoubtedly had a good case, but  La Gaga’s grab, horrible though it is, isn’t anything like as cutting edge as TBD make out. Bands, their agents and promoters have been foisting predatory contracts on photographers for quite some time. Here’s a list of just some acts who have presented such contracts in the recent past: Aaron Neville, Aerosmith, Avril Lavigne, Bad Company, Beastie Boys, Ben Harper & Relentless7, Cheap Trick, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, George Strait/Reba Mcentire/Lee Ann Womack, Gogol Bordello, Hellyeah, Jane’s Addiction, Jimmy Eat World, Janet Jackson, Jonas Brothers, Jonny Lang, Jordin Sparks, Katy Perry, KISS, Lady Gaga, Lenny Kravitz, Leonard Cohen, Linkin Park, Matchbox 20, Melissa Ethridge, MGMT, Mike Ness, Muse, My Chemical Romance, Papa Roach, Paula Abdul, Queens of the Stone Age, Robbie Williams, Steven Seagal, Stevie Wonder, Stone Temple Pilots, Taylor Swift, The Mars Volta, The Raconteurs, The White Stripes, Tom Jones, Tom Petty, Turbonegro. To see what these acts have tried on, just click a name to be taken to the relevant contract.

One might think it took days of research to round that lot up. In fact so widespread is the practice that it only took half a dozen e-mails and a quick sweep of the interweb to find those; you can bet the list isn’t comprehensive.

The Music Photographers Network has excellent edited highlights of the worst contracts, some of which are astonishingly ambitious in their claims. Highly restricted use of the photographs by the photographer is de rigueur, while the bands generally award themselves broad free use of the images; in effect a transfer of copyright. Many take the Gaga route of a full transfer of rights, leaving the photographer with nothing. A few even contain clauses for damages – up to $1M – against photographers who breach the terms of the contract.

And some seem to be drafted by people who think double secret probation is a legal term. In 2006 Robbie Williams earned media mockery and white space instead of concert reviews and pictures when he presented a contract containing the absurd legalese:

“We shall be entitled to assign transfer sub-license mortgage charge…”

Two years ago, while facing a lawsuit from guitarist Joe Satriani for plagiarism [irony alert!], Coldplay tossed this at photographers:

“You hereby transfer and assign to us with full title guarantee the entire copyright and all extensions and renewals throughout the world (including by way of present assignment of future rights) and all rights of a similar nature in the Photographs.”

But perhaps the best clause in any band photo release is this one:

“You agree keep their agreement confidential and not to reveal to any third party any personal information concerning this agreement, the Artist or us, that you may become aware of or may be informed of, during the course of your engagement under this agreement.”

That’s right, this is a music combo is so important, their contract so secret, that signatories cannot even acknowledge its existence to third parties: it’s the popster’s version of a super injunction.

The situation is so bad that some photographers have got together and drafted their own more even-handed release to present to bands. TBD suggest that copyright can get complicated because some publishers demand ownership of contributing photographers’ work, setting them on a collision course with the likes of her ladyship. But there’s nothing complicated about that, it’s simply the inevitable consequence of a world where everyone except the photographer thinks they own the photographer’s work: two sides arguing ownership of something that’s not theirs in the first place. It’s called greed.

UPDATE 09/03/2011: this article has been revised and corrected to remove the erroneous claim that TBD claim ownership of contributing freelance photographers’ work. Jay Westcott of TBD has clarified their contract requirements in comment 5 below.

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14 Responses to “Dear Photographers, Lady Gaga Wants The Copyright On Your Work – And So Does Everyone Else”

  1. Jon Lister Jon Lister says:

    Hi Jeremy. I think we have met, sometime back in the 80’s – I used to be a pic ed on the Indy – anyway, have been based (back) in Sydney for a while now and used to do a lot of first 3 numbers and was always presented with the usual rights grabbing release which I always signed with a mickey mouse signature – was George W Bush once at least. They are all really not worth the paper they are printed on. Fuck em all I say,

  2. drew farrell drew farrell says:

    The Coldplay rights grab is particularly galling as Mister Martin bleats on about fair trade, yet seems happy to shaft fellow creatives.

  3. Gabe Levy Gabe Levy says:

    Maybe Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Autotune etc. should make musicians who buy their equipment assign all rights of music played on on through their gear to them. Seems fair…

  4. […] on the Russian Photos Blog, Dear Photographers, Lady Gaga Wants The Copyright On Your Work. Oh, And By The Way, So Do We makes interesting reading on a related topic, although I think the answer is simply to stop […]

  5. Jay Westcott Jay Westcott says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    I’m sorry if we didn’t make it clearer in the article: The paragraph you are referring to explains that TBD owns the photos I took because I’m a staff photographer, an employee of TBD and that ownership of copyright belongs to the employer. That’s why I called my editor, it wasn’t my copyright to sign away, it was TBD’s. That call confirmed what I already knew I would do if it were my copyright: do not sign it away. As for other photographers that work with TBD on a freelance basis, no one will “lose” their copyright if they shoot for TBD. Neither Andrew or myself, or anyone at TBD for that matter, was contacted regarding our freelance contract language for this article. In case any of your readers are wondering, freelancers who shoot for TBD give up right of first publication, not copyright. After 90 days, they may do with their photographs what they wish (TBD requests a courtesy line saying a photo first appeared there).

    Kind regards,

    Jay Westcott

  6. Mike Mike says:

    You should at least vet the list – Katy Perry’s contract linked to makes it clear that you or the publication own the copyright, and the Taylor Swift doesn’t look like a rights grab either (they can ask your permission to use the photos non-commercially)

  7. Robert Robert says:

    In the Taylor Swift contract, it says in paragraph 3 that Firefly Entertainment contacts the publication, not you. You have no say in whether FE can use your pics or not.

  8. […] characterized the story as Lady Gaga gobbling up photographers’ copyrights, while others are arguing that these types of contracts are pretty common for big-name […]

  9. […] characterized the story as Lady Gaga gobbling up photographers’ copyrights, while others are arguing that these types of contracts are pretty common for big-name […]

  10. Pete Jenkins Pete Jenkins says:

    It isn’t just about out and out rights grabs. Many of these artists – creators – no different from photographers as creators of original works are trying to control the output of other creators. It is neither right nor fair, and how would these musicians feel if we started trying to control where they performed and how they performed.

    All these guys are actually worried about is commercial use of images – they actually want editorial use – it is lifeblood to performers.

    Look at the photographers-artists agreement that Jeremy referred to and you will see a perfectly usable agreement that covers every body’s needs without having to rip the arse out of photographers or sell performers down the river.

    One side does not have to ‘rip off’ the other for an acceptable way of working to be agreed.

    I accept that probably many artists would be most concerned if the actually realised whjat their PR and management teams were doing in their name.

  11. Jeremy admin says:

    Hi Jay,

    The article has been updated and corrected. Thanks for setting things right, and apologies for getting it so badly wrong in the first place.

  12. Jeremy admin says:


    You should at least read the contracts. In Katy Perry’s contract photographers cede complete control of their work to Kerry:
    “You agree not to syndicate, distribute, publish or otherwise use the Photographs without the prior written approval by Katy Perry or her authorized representative[s] in each and every instance. Katy Perry shall be under no obligation to grant any such approval to you. Kate Perry, in the exercise of her sole and absolute discretion, may withhold her approval for any reason whatsoever.”

    If thats not your idea of a rights grab, what is?

  13. […] looks at some interesting ones. For example, in 2006 Robbie Williams chucked in: “We shall be entitled to assign transfer sub-license mortgage charge…” […]

  14. This is nothing new. I’ve had worse contracts thrown at me, I do like the photographers version to hand back to the management. I might keep a copy of that for myself. Oh wait thats breaking copyright laws isnt it!? lol

  15. Pete Jenkins Pete Jenkins says:

    Portrait Photographer.
    The Photographers version is there exactly for that purpose. That’s why I (and others) wrote it. Please use it wherever you need to, but please let me know the results.

    So far three bands and one festival have (to my knowel;dge used it) I would like to think that it might get picked up even if slowly.

    Pete J

  16. […] – Jeremy Nicholl: Dear Photographers, Lady Gaga Wants The Copyright On Your Work. Oh, And By The Way, So Do We (photographer’s blog: March […]

  17. Keith Keith says:

    I have just been told that I cannot get accreditation for an Elton John gig which is happening in the town where I am based and the only photographers who are allowed in are the local paper who have had to sign one of these contracts. God knows what they are signing!

    I bet the paper still turns up and gives them loads of FREE publicity – even if they are being told what they can do with their own images!

    The only way this is going to stop is by us all completely boycotting these concerts, and therefore not giving any publicity to them.

    After all, it’s partly the newspapers, magazines and their journalists & photographers who have made all these artists who they are today.

  18. 205guy 205guy says:

    I think this sort of contract is, unconsciously, a response to the overly broad rights granted by copyright law. You have a celebrity with face recognition, and anyone can grab his or her image and sell it for non-commercial use. But it’s counter-intuitive that the value of a photographer’s work increases because of who they point their lens at.

    The newspaper can’t really claim it is them who is helping to promote the celebrity, when it’s more the case of the newspaper using the celebrity’s image to promote itself. For another example, look at the whole Baio case: it would’ve been a non-case if it wasn’t a picture of Miles Davis, whose heirs had no say in the matter.

    The problem with copyright law is that in order to protect certain people and certain uses with one wording, it gives other people other benefits that don’t always seem warranted. For example, I hired a photographer for my wedding, and to the novice that I was, I assumed I was paying for her time, her equipment, and her expertise, and in return getting (as in owning) the pictures of my wedding. But no, that’s only the case if we do a special contract to that effect.

    What I’m seeing is that a lot of photographers are being prickly about anyone who suggests that perhaps the excessive rights should be pruned back, either through strong contracts such as this one or changes to the law.

    PS, I am not a stockbroker.

  19. 205guy 205guy says:

    Link about wedding photography expectations among non-photographers and non-lawyers:

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