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Red Bull: Neither Jealous nor Ignorant

22 August 2001 - EPUK

The ‘Comment’ “Extreme sports – take ‘em or leave ‘em” (British Journal of Photography 22.08.2001) is shocking, outrageous and insulting, say photographers.

It is shocking that the Editor of a reputable magazine such as BJP finds it acceptable to promote a competition in which the contestants are required to give up their copyright.

It is outrageous that in attempting to defend the indefensible the Editor omits to answer his own question “So what is there to complain about?” with the answer which lies at the root of the issue: the fact that the photographers must give away their copyright in the pictures forever.

And it is insulting to read that the “inescapable conclusion is that those who seek to criticise are acting not out of genuine concern but out of either jealousy or ignorance.”

Many of those who have criticised the BJP are not and have no wish to be sports photographers, so it is absurd to accuse them of jealousy. Nor are they ignorant, for they have read the contract which will apply to the photographs and know the damage which is being done to photography through similar “rights grabbing” contracts.

It is the British Journal of Photography’s Editor, Jon Tarrant, who appears in photographers’ opinions to be ignorant; ignorant of the issues faced by those photographers working in today’s editorial market. A market where clients demand more in return for less, where “day rates” haven’t increased in years, where no consideration of photographers’ investment in new technology is taken into account, where freelance photographers are being told “we own the copyright or you don’t work for us any more.”

Fundamental

The ownership of copyright is the most fundamental thing a freelance photographer has. Some see it as a pension, some wish to control how their work is used, others make a good proportion of their income through “re-sales”. This is how freelancers have worked for the past fifty years. It underpins the “great” photo agencies and photographers at Magnum, Network, and IPG as well as all the “lesser” independent photographers. It allows photographers to work on assignment for one magazine and then sell the pictures to another magazine in another country. This basic concept means important stories can be told and published throughout the world where it would be financially impracticable for one magazine to fund them.

Copyright is valuable to a freelance photographer. Copyright makes up for low day rates, it makes up for not having paid holidays, car and equipment supplied, pension taken care of, insurance, sick pay and a guaranteed monthly pay cheque.

And now clients want what does not belong to them and what they refuse to pay for – copyright. More and more photographers find themselves being told that the copyright will in future belong to the client. The client will make whatever use of the material it wants, re-using, syndicating, selling, and the photographer will get nothing more than the usual rate. If you don’t like it you don’t get any work from us. Clever clients tell photographers that actually they don’t want to own the copyright, that remains with the photographer. But the client demands the rights to free reuse and to syndicate the material. The effect is the same every time – the freelance photographer loses.

Smart photographers walk away from bad deals but a number of short sighted or poor ones or ill informed ones are happy to take the money whatever the contract says. The more who do, the easier it becomes for clients to impose bad deals. The more they impose them the more walking the smart photographer has to do. Of course nobody has to work under a contract they don’t like, but what happens when the Red Bull “irrevocable and exclusive right to exploit said Photographs without limitation as to time, place (world-wide) or substance” contract is the only one being offered?

Strange

So it is very strange to find the BJP apparently condoning such fundamentally damaging contracts by supporting a competition which offers one as a prize.

By supporting ‘Red Bull in Focus’ the Editor of the BJP is telling young photographers that this is the normal way to do business. He is telling them that it is correct and proper that the client commissioning the work should own the copyright. And by telling them that the Editor is undermining the whole nature of freelance editorial photography. The strong opinion of photographers is that instead of standing against ‘rights grabbing’ contracts the editor is supporting them & making them the norm.

There are of course situations where it is not unusual to assign copyright or agree terms which limit the use of work. Ever wonder why advertising photographers are so well paid? You could hardly offer pictures for resale to a competitor. But the difference is that the advertising photographer is properly remunerated for the rights.

And in the world of mainstream sports photography there are agreements which limit the use to which material can be put. These are in place to ‘protect’ the athlete’s image. They do not, however, remove the ownership of the copyright from the photographer.

Perhaps that is Red Bull’s intention, to protect the athletes and maybe to protect their own image. In which case a suitable contract, perhaps requiring permission or limiting usage, could be drafted. But that involves thinking and working, and in the end it’s cheaper and easier to just wrap it all up and bundle it away from the photographer. A classic “rights grab”.

Red Bull will be paying the eventually successful photographers for the work done. And at first sight they will be paid fairly. There is the basic day rate and there is payment for travel days and time spent in preparation and for editing. And the fact that photographers working with digital equipment will be paid an additional amount must of course be applauded. So it’s a fair day’s money? It would be if it was for a magazine, one time publication (“first rights”), copyright remaining with the photographer. But that is not the deal. The deal is for unlimited use by unlimited publications in unlimited countries for an unlimited time. What’s that worth? But wait, there’s more… These aren’t just any sports events which are to be photographed, these are events which Red Bull sponsor, where Red Bull’s name and logo appear, where Red Bull have control. So in fact it’s not editorial photography it’s commercial work, in fact it’s bordering on advertising. Now what’s that worth? But wait, that’s not all… Red Bull Photofiles distribute the photographs free of charge. If you run a magazine and you need a few action pictures of snow boarding, why go to all that bother and expense of commissioning a photographer, paying them and all their expenses when you can have pictures for free? Nice deal. Publication gets free photos, Red Bull gets subliminal advertising and somewhere another photographer goes without a job.

How?

So how is it that the BJP Editor is supporting a competition which is bad for photographers, bad for the industry and ultimately bad for the magazine?

At first sight the competition seems like fun. It’s not until you start looking at the detail that it becomes unreasonable in the extreme. Perhaps the Editor missed the detail, perhaps the decision was too rushed, perhaps it was agreed without reading the small print. Or just a plain old error of judgement? Could it really be possible that the BJP Editor went into the agreement to promote the competition knowing full well and caring less about the damage the contract could cause?

Whatever the reason, the Editor stands by the decision and attempts to defend the contest and contract. He does this in the face of mounting opposition from alienated readers all over the world, both in the BJP’s own web site forum and “elsewhere”. The greater the attempt to defend the decision the more readers are upset at his attitude. For a magazine selling 6600 copies with a declining circulation, every single reader is important. How does he manage to miss the point?

The Editor has been caught out and is now busy digging himself into a hole, a hole which, judging by the number of irate readers’ comments, could soon become the BJP’s grave. So having been caught out isn’t it time to implement some crisis management and salvage the situation? The options are to continue attempting to sell the deal as good for photographers or to do the right thing. The right thing is to own up and admit that the contest and contract is not good for photography. It may be difficult for some, but it is the brave and correct thing to do – admit that his support and promotion was wrong and that in the face of reader concern the Editor no longer supports the Red Bull contest. Only then will the BJP be able to regain the authority it claims as “The Professional’s Weekly”. Only then will readers begin again to respect the magazine as a serious publication. Only then will photographers know that the BJP and its Editor supports, stands up for and cares about them.

Or not.

By continuing his support for Red Bull the Editor puts himself in an untenable position. Having alienated and offended a major section of his target audience through, in our opinion, ignorance of the issues they face, he brings contempt on his magazine, his views and the articles he publishes. If the Editor insists on sticking to this position we are of the view that there can be no option other than his removal from the Editor’s chair. He must, we feel, either resign having lost the confidence of his readers or be removed by the publishers. Surely the publishers understand that they cannot have a magazine edited by someone believed to be at such cross purposes to the readership.

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