Usage License is a phrase that is often bandied about without a clear understanding as to its purpose. Yet, it is critical for you as a photographer, illustrator, or any other commercial creative artist. It is the legal language that defines the parameters of how, when, and where your creative work can be used. This applies to work that you’ve been hired to create, as well as any existing work that is solicited for use. To bring some clarity and to dispel misinformation about usage licenses and copyright I’ve created this list of frequently asked questions.

The copyright belongs solely to the creator at the time of creation and stays with the creator until she transfers it to someone else, or until 70 years after her death. In the case of joint authorship like a collaboration, the 70 year period runs from the end of the year in which the last surviving author passes away.

That’s the explicit purpose of a usage license. It allows you to grant specific rights to your client so they can use your work in specific geographic regions, for a set amount of time, in specific media.

Even though I’m getting paid to create the work?

Yes, even though your client pays you, you still own the copyright, and you still have to grant the specific permissions or usages for the work.

What does a usage license look like?

This license is strictly limited to the terms and conditions below, and governed by the Copyright laws of the United States, as specified in Title 17 of the United States Code:

Licensee: The Groovy Agency
Licensor: Lou Lesko
Date: 9/4/2014
Duration: 2 years
Region: The United States
Exclusivity: Exclusive
Media: Advertising All Print Publications, Advertising Out of Home
Quantity Rights: Unlimited
Credit: Lou Lesko

Wow, a usage license looks complicated and I’m no lawyer.

You can also define your own usage license by remembering the following: who, what, where and where, how long. Lets dissect the criteria:

Who can use your license—to whom are you extending the usage license, or who is paying you.
What can be used—meaning what art, music or literature are you licensing. Also keep in mind to define what can be used from a set of multiples, like a photographic shoot, all the images or just the delivered images.
Where can it be used—meaning the geographic locations. Anywhere from a city to the world.
Where can it appear—this defines the media it can appear in from magazine print to the internet to outdoor billboards.
How long can it be used—the length of time it can be used, days, weeks, months, years — it’s whatever the deal calls for.

What happens when a usage license expires?

All the rights revert back to you.

How do magazine publication usage licenses work?

Magazines typically buy a one time only publishing usage for the specific publication. This is usually followed by an embargo period.

Embargo period?

If you shoot a cover of the September issue of Vanity Fair magazine, the magazine will have an exclusive right to your image for the month of September plus an embargo period of three to six months. During the embargo period you can’t do anything with your image even though the magazine is off the newsstands. This protects value of the publication for a reasonable time period until it loses its current event value on its own.

This is called a poor man’s copyright. It does nothing for you, save yourself the cost of the postage.

It depends. Even though the law recognizes you as the copyright owner of your work, a certificate of registration is incredibly difficult to refute, so registering your work will give you solid ammunition if you have to go after someone legally. However, the task of registering your work can be a bit arduous, so it depends on the value you place on the work, and the likelihood of someone using the work illegally.

If a blog grabs one of my photographic, literary, music, or artistic works from my web site and uses it, am I gonna be rich?

Probably not. Your first course of action is to send a “cease and desist” letter to the person or blog illegally using your work. The law assumes a certain level of benefit-of-doubt and allows room for a copyright infringer to fix the issue. Also if a blog is talking about the work specifically, there’s something called fair use exception in which the constitutional tenet of free speech trumps copyright law allowing a citizen to show your work if they’re referencing it in an article.

Okay, how about if I see one of my photographic, literary, music, or artistic works used in an advertising campaign?

It’s time to call your lawyer. When somebody uses your creative work without permission as a way to make money, the law is very clear. That said, bringing a copyright suit is expensive. So do some soul searching and make sure the stakes are worth the investment.