Washington, D.C. website TBD.com made this practice public on Friday when they published the release form given to their photographer Jay Westcott. In addition to standard release restrictions regarding the use of images shot at her concerts, the document states that any photos taken at the show become the property of Lady Gaga. This an especially bold demand as the government has established that copyright exists the moment when a work is created, which in this case is the moment when a photographer clicks their shutter button.
“It’s utterly disrespectful of the time, the effort and the creativity of the photographer,” says concert photographer and intellectual property lawyer David Atlas. “I think it’s some misguided need to control the images that are out there, but she has so little control over those images,” he says, noting that Gaga is so frequently photographed by paparazzi and at awards shows that it seems unfair to place more strict demands on the photographers who come to her shows.
Lady Gaga is not the first artist to make this sort of demand – Foo Fighters and Beastie Boys also ask photographers to sign over their copyright – but many in the photo world, including members of the Music Photographers group on Facebook, feel that this is part of accelerating trend in which photographers are subject to increasingly unreasonable conditions for access to live events.
“Just because she does the show doesn’t mean that she has the talent or ability to capture the image,” BestMusicLive editor Erik Thureson writes in the group’s thread about the TBD.com article. “That would be like the venue saying they own the rights to that show’s music because it is played in their house.“
“These artists blow up, and depending on their personality and the management they surround themselves with, they end up with a result like this,” veteran concert photographer Tim Mosenfelder tells Rolling Stone. “There are artists out there who are pretty fair with the press. For example, Justin Bieber is very receptive to allowing the press to cover his performances, and he’s blown up.” Mosenfelder also says that Madonna, Radiohead and Arcade Fire are also very generous with press photographers and do not require a signed release.
The release form given to Westcott is not the only version of the form Gaga is using on her Monster Ball tour. A second version exists that does not demand the photographer to sign over their copyright. According to Atlas, the less restrictive version is intended for larger publications, whereas the version that claims full rights is designed for smaller, web-only publications such as TBD.com.
“Typically the person who has the least leverage gets the worst release,” Atlas says. “Maybe there’s a photographer that she likes who won’t have to sign the release form, but the people who get paid $125 to hang out for four hours at a concert have to sign this release. So on top of getting paid very little, they have no ongoing revenue stream from these photos whatsoever.”
“All she is doing is formalizing the process that’s been in place for a while,” photographer Tim Bugbee says in another thread in the Music Photographers Facebook group. “I’ve seen plenty of shooters under contract to a newspaper or major wire service get rights-grab releases waived, whereas bottom feeders like myself have no leverage.”
Still, Mosenfelder believes that Gaga’s release isn’t so much a sign of things to come so much as it is a sign of the times. “As the economy improves, the severity of these releases will start to come down,” he says. “Artists are always going to need press, and as long as they realize that the press is a tool and use it properly, things will be closer to a free press, but it’s not a free world.”
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