An Author’s Guide to Photographic and Picture Permissions

Christian Jennings provides some useful tips on clearing permissions You can imagine the moment. You’ve just completed your latest non-fiction book, on deadline. It’s taken you months, if not more, but you’ve got there, and have just clicked ‘send’ to whip it over to the publishers. For now, you feel cross-eyed, from having your eyes eighteen inches from your computer screen for fourteen hours per day for the last month. Physically exhausted from sitting hunched in your chair, your lower back aching as though it’s been used for jousting practice in a more-violent episode of Game of Thrones. But the majority of the work, you feel, is done. Ahead lie the Elysian fields of delivery advance payments, long lunches, idly thinking of your next book idea. Publicity, copy-editing, marketing? That’s mostly for the publishers to take care of. And didn’t your editor say something about getting photographic permissions cleared too? After all, your forthcoming book will involve up to thirty colour pictures. Ah, you think, but that kind of work is months away. Leave it for now. Actually, don’t. It’s best not to. There’s nothing that publishing editors, their design and art departments, and authors themselves need less than a desperate scramble against the clock to get photographic permissions cleared and paid for, just as a book is going into production. Clearing permissions is a time-consuming process, and one whose complexity and importance authors often underestimate. The lead-up to publication on a book should be a time of enjoyment, anticipation and mutual cooperation for both writer and editor, not for knashing of teeth because the author hasn’t cleared and paid for the colour picture permissions on the full-page spreads of Josef Mengele, Kate Moss, JFK, or Audrey Hepburn. If you think about it in advance, choosing images for your book and clearing copyright permissions on them is a straightforward process. The longer you spend on it, the more research you can put into discovering what pictures are out there, and how to avoid paying large fees for their reproduction – or indeed, how to get this for free. So here are some general tips, equally applicable for non-fiction books being published in Great Britain, the United States, European and Commonwealth countries. At the end of the advice article, there are three links to websites that explain in great detail the legal background to copyright as it pertains to photographic and text permissions, and the need for authors to obtain them. 1. Do it now. Finding the best quality reproductions of photographs for your book, at the lowest possible price, or for free, takes time. Start thinking about it a month or so after you’ve delivered your book. Take time and make it fun. There are hundreds of museums and archives and agencies and personal or governmental collections out there, with some stunning photographs. Some are free; some reasonably priced. Some very expensive. 2. Remember the five basics of picture copyright permissions in books, which are the following, and which are your duty as an author to handle: 3. Do I need a permission? In most cases the answer is yes. The sprawling electronic prairies of the internet look wide open, but they’re deceptive. Pretty much every image you see on the web is just a copy of a photograph, whether in film or digital version, that is owned by somebody, and that somebody or their representatives has a full set of legal, moral and intellectual copyrights on their work, and will expect this to be respected. 4. Find out who owns the copyright. An individual, their estate, an agent, a museum, an archive, a family, a gallery? In this case, it sometimes helps to employ a freelance picture researcher, even for a day or two, who is au fait with the different network of copyright ownership in a country in question. The art department of your publisher will normally need a scan of an original photo print, or high-quality resolution electronic version thereof. 5. What kind of rights do you need? These will depend on whether the pictures will appear in colour or black and white, full-page or half or a quarter, for a hardback, paperback or e-book, and for commercial print runs of up to 5,000, 20,000 or more. Rights and costs will depend on the kind of commercial use you will be making of the pictures in question. 6. Having found the owner of the copyright see how much money, if at all, you need to pay them, and what credit will be required in your book. Again, a picture researcher can help here. 7. Make sure to get this permission in writing, as clearly as possible, signed by the person who owns the copyright. Many publishers will expect you to have these written permissions cleared before the production process can finish and your book be printed. 8. Remember – photo agencies are in business to make money, understandably. Sometimes it is much cheaper to look in national government archives, museums or art galleries, but remember, all of them will have their own specific copyright regulations and requirements for reproduction of their images. 9. Just because you as an individual happen to possess a copy of a particular photograph, it doesn’t mean you have the copyright on it, even if it is of a close relative. 10. For every expensive image available, there is normally one that is less well-known, and cheaper, if not free, to reproduce. Finding the best image, and then finding who owns the copyright, and then finding them, takes time. This is why it’s best to think about picture permissions as far as possible in advance. These links from various publishers or archives explain copyright of pictures and the printed word very well, and may be of further assistance: A good general guide for the United States: A good example for the United Kingdom, from the National Archives: And from the German national archives, the Bundesarchiv: And this is brief, but good, about copyright and Google Images:

About article author

Christian Jennings

Christian Jennings is a British writer and freelance foreign correspondent, and the author of eight works of non-fiction. Since 1994, across twenty-three countries, he has been writing books and journalism on international current affairs, history, science and subjects such as war crimes investig...More about Christian Jennings