“Work for Hire” vs. Ownership of Work – My thoughts on signing a contract with The Associated Press

I was recently asked if I could come in and sign a freelancer contract with The Associated Press (AP), and while I was very flattered to be asked, my immediate thoughts were not entirely positive- and they center around the great “work for hire” debate.

For those who don’t know, The AP is a non-profit organization that consists of many members, like newspapers, magazines, and other forms of print media, who pay monthly fees and in return are allowed use of AP content, (images, stories, maybe even video) for use in their publications. The AP has bureaus worldwide, and while not the most prestigious photo or wire agency in the world, (That honor would undoubtedly go to VII, Magnum or Black Star), it is probably the best known one, and is certainly widely respected.

As a photographer, freelancing for the AP has the potential for national and international exposure. So naturally, I was excited about the prospect of getting my work before people’s eyes. After all, if you dream of being a photojournalist, you generally dream of telling stories that affect people’s lives- but in order to do that, people need to see your work.

However, (as with any wire service), signing a contract with the AP means that when they send you on assignment, the work you produce on that assignment belongs to them. This is known legally as “work for hire” – a company pays you a fixed rate to produce specific works, and in essence you become a temporary employee for the duration of that assignment, although the traditional benefits of direct employment don’t magically accompany this virtual employee status, (health care, unemployment insurance, social security, etc). It seems different in the case of news photography, since the photographer isn’t in control of the scene, or the “assignment” like one would on an advertising or corporate brochure shoot. We are not producing the employer’s “vision” at all- just actual reality.

The other side of this coin, is the reality that most of the time the work you create under contract doesn’t have material, lasting value that you’re being denied. It is rare that a single image defines a generation, or a decade, or even a year. Of course, when you’re the photographer, losing out on the potential future rights sales is a depressing thought, but, and not to be too depressing here, the odds are stacked against you that you’ll even be the one to snap that image.

In the meantime, any assignments I get will benefit both parties equally, and I’m ok with that for now. If and when the time comes that I’m shooting long, documentary photo stories/essays or producing work that I believe WILL have more value to me in the long run, I will choose to shoot it independently, and own the results myself.

For now, I’ll just permit myself the confidence boost that just being asked to sign the contract allows me the luxury of.

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