The Blog Library

Q&A | Addressing Client Copyright Infringement

We love our clients.  But sometimes, situations come up that are difficult to handle.  I emailed my Inbox High-Fives list yesterday, inviting them to send in their client questions.  The questions pouring in are awesome!  (Not on the list?  You’re missing out on fabulous freebies, secret sales, and other 100% certified non-spammy goodness.  Sign up on the sidebar now!)  Let’s dig in:

Q:   I built an ad poster for an association’s 2011 event.  I made the poster and gave them a usage license, part of which says the usage is only for one year.  It’s clear what the image can be used for and how long.  We have a verbal agreement for me to build their posters for the next few years … [and]  I get lots of other work from their referrals.

Here’s where the problem comes in.  I just got the associations newsletter announcing their “new logo”,  my 2011 picture!  I don’t want to lose future revenue to get paid for extra use on the one image, but I don’t want to let them get away with this either!  To me it is a matter of principal much more than the fee on the additional usage.

Question: How can I let them know (what wording do I use) to tell them this is wrong, but so I don’t lose them as a client, lose future revenue and referrals, or worse cause them to tell everyone I’m a jerk to work with (bad news travels fast).  I need to figure out how to make this whole situation right in my own mind somehow.   – Stacy


A:  I’m so glad to hear that you wrote up a clear usage license, and I assume that both you and the association have it in writing.  That turns this issue from a copyright-asserting nightmare to a mere matter of email wording.  Great job!  Side note to our friends who are just starting out:

This situation illustrates why you should always, always, always have written contracts and licenses.  If a camera is involved, a contract should be involved.

No matter the situation, no matter the client, no matter how much you like them or how much business they are giving you.  A contract does not say “I don’t trust you,” a contract says “I care about our relationship enough to make sure we both know what we’re creating together.”  Your life will be unbelievably easier when expectations and policies are written down and agreed to beforehand.

I’m thrilled that you asked this question, because it gives me a chance to disabuse everyone of the notion that ‘enforcing policies’ = ‘mean.’  Just think:  If you went to Disneyland and started cutting in lines, even the Happiest Place On Earth would have to step in and enforce their policies.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to other clients, their park would be a total mess, and they’d lose out on profits.  So they step in – with a smile.

We want to be kind, reasonable business people, and maintain good client relationships.  Fortunately, you can enforce your policies while still being kind and reasonable.  

The fact that you already have plans to continue working with them is all the more reason to enforce your policies now.  Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for a situation where they continue to infringe upon your agreements, and you’ll only grow more hesitant to enforce them because they could just say “Well you never said anything before!”

One thing to have ever-present in your mind:  Our clients aren’t photographers.  

Consequently, things that appear to us to be egregious breaches of contract are often simple misunderstandings or garden-variety forgetfulness.  It’s natural for us to feel hurt or betrayed when we see violations, but in my limited experience with copyright infringement, the person doesn’t usually realize what they did.  Keep this in mind when you take the first step to contact them – approach it in a friendly way, as though you’re reminding them rather than lecturing them.  Friendly reminders don’t usually elicit anger or defensive reaction.

Your wording in these situations should reflect your enthusiasm for their business, and your willingness to make any necessary changes easy for them.  

For example:

“Dear ___ Association, I was so excited to see that you loved your images enough to add one as a logo!  As you may recall, our usage license designated that the fee you paid would cover one year’s use of this image.  As I’m sure you won’t want to change your logo at the end of the year, I have taken the liberty of drawing up a lifetime use license which can be yours for $___.  Please see the attached document for details of what the new lifetime license would include.  For your convenience, I’ve attached our original license agreement for comparison.  Please call me at 555-555-5555 if you have any further questions.  I look forward to working with you in 2012, and can’t wait to complete the upcoming poster!  Have a great day.”

In follow-up dialogue, you might also ask the client “Hey, would you like to change your license so that all of your images are granted lifetime use?  Our agreed rate would need to be adjusted to $____, but then you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

Make it seem like you’re solving a problem for them, rather than confronting them.

You’ll never lose by solving other people’s problems.



Keep reading:


  1. Debra Kidd on January 12, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Can you send me a copy of a contract or where I can find one? Thank you!

    • Jenika on January 12, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      Copying a contract from someone else is a risky business, because laws vary by state. Additionally, policies vary widely between photographers, and if you start modifying someone else’s contract, you could be taking important language out. The best and safest practice is to create a list of your policies and seek real legal help. This need not be expensive – sometimes law schools will have business clinics, and there are places online where you can hire a lawyer for a standard contract. Just make sure that the lawyer helps you make it readable. Unreadable contract = clients won’t read it = clients are more likely to infringe. Good luck!

  2. Kristi Kvenild on January 13, 2012 at 3:33 am

    Great post! On a similar note, what is your opinion on clients using images on social networking sites without your “permission”? For.example, cropping out your logo or copying the image from an online gallery? I have heard two schools of thought: copyright infrigement and free aadvertising, as people will inevitably ask who took the photos and where they can get some.just like it.

    • Jenika on January 13, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      This is a GREAT question….so great it deserves its own post. See today’s headline…

  3. Rebecca on January 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I really like your response to this issue. For this example you make the assumption that the client didn’t understand they shouldn’t be using the photo for another year, how would you deal with this differently if the client HAD been aware and had made the deliberate choice to carry on using the photo?

    • Jenika on January 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm

      If they had made the deliberate choice, I still would have started out acting as though they had just forgotten and I was reminding them. That would make them realize that I was watching, and give them a chance to back out gracefully.

      If they ignored or didn’t respond well, then I’d call them directly (or actually, I’d probably show up at the offices – they can’t hang up on you if you’re there in person) and discuss the issue pleasantly and cheerfully. If that was to no avail, I’d escalate it to having a letter from a lawyer sent, etc. You would have to make your own decision about whether it was worth the time and effort to take them to small claims court, you might have to wait until they had actually breached the contract to make your case (though you can sue someone for an anticipatory breach). At that point, I’d probably no longer be worried about “losing their business,” because I wouldn’t want to continue to work with a client who had flagrantly violated a legal agreement. People need to take contracts seriously and treat people with respect.

      I sincerely hope no one ever puts me in that position.

Leave a Comment