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Concert photographer criticises Taylor Swift’s rights demands

By | Published on Tuesday 23 June 2015

Taylor Swift

The world rejoiced this weekend of course, when Taylor Swift singlehandedly took on the might of Apple and won, the tech giant definitely not just doing something it was planning on doing anyway (ie capitulating on the royalty free summer) but grabbing extra PR points by pretending it was responding to one popstar rather than thousands of labels.

Oh, but look at me being all cynical. And either way, Swift’s letter calling for fairer terms from Apple Music, regardless of what actual impact it had, was indeed a well-written, passionately delivered and much-needed show of support by a big name musician for grass roots artists, songwriters, labels and publishers.

There are numerous reasons why Swift was the only big pop name to do this, not least because, before you start calling out big companies on unfair practices, you need to be pretty sure your own business dealings are in fine order first. And for the most part, Swift’s quite probably are. But there’s always going to be a weak spot, and in this case it is the agreement she apparently asks photographers to sign before they document her live shows.

As Swift’s open letter was being circulated over the weekend, freelance photographer Jason Sheldon wrote his own. “I have read your open letter to Apple where you give your reasons for refusing to allow your album ‘1989’ to be included on their forthcoming Apple Music streaming service”, he wrote. “I applaud it. It’s great to have someone with a huge following standing up for the rights of creative people and making a stand against the corporate behemoths who have so much power they can make or break someone’s career”.

But after the compliments, he posted portions of the photographer agreement he had been asked to sign before attending one of the popstar’s concerts. This stated that he could only licence photographs taken at the show once to the publication that commissioned him. After that, all rights in the pictures must be handed over to Swift for her own use forever more.

“You say in your letter to Apple that ‘three months is a long time to go unpaid'”, continued Sheldon. “But you seem happy to restrict us to being paid once, and never being able to earn from our work ever again, while granting you the rights to exploit our work for your benefit for all eternity”.

Clarifying the problem in a later update, he added: “As a freelance photographer, I am asked to photograph concerts by publications. I get paid IF and when the photos are used, not for turning up to a show and shooting it. Therefore, if the newspaper has a bigger story to run and doesn’t have enough room to use my photo, I don’t get paid”.

“When I’m not allowed to do anything else with the photos, that means I’ve incurred expenses to work, which I can’t recover”, he continued. “Therefore preventing me from licensing my photos to more than one publication, or even (as later versions of this contract stipulate) preventing me from using the images for my own self-promotion in a portfolio etc while they can use them without licensing the usage is highly unfair and unjustified”.

Concluding the original letter, he echoed the closing sentiment of Swift’s plea to Apple: “With all due respect to you Taylor, you can do the right thing and change your photo policy. Photographers don’t ask for your music for free. Please don’t ask us to provide you with your marketing material for free”.

Such agreements over the rights in photographs taken at gigs are not something solely demanded by Swift, nor is it something particularly new. Jane’s Addiction made such demands on their reunion tour in 2009 and in 2012, and The Stone Roses were heavily criticised by photographers for asking them to sign similar agreements that would turn over all rights in pictures taken of the band in return for a payment of £1.

And earlier this year, photographer Pat Pope publicly called out Garbage and their management for asking to print some of his early pictures of the band in a new book, on the grounds that he had already been paid for taking them in the first place.

Though as yet, Swift is yet to comment on the criticism of her photographer contracts.