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Make Money from Your Photography with Licensing

Whitney O’Sullivan

Make Money from Your Photography with Licensing

If you’re a photographer, there are many ways to share and shop around your work.

You can display your work online yourself, become a contributor to stock photography websites, pitch retailers and wholesalers, or contact local businesses in hopes of displaying your work in their lobbies, to name a few. 

Each method has its pros and cons, including short-term versus long-term payoff, giving up of future rights, and widespread versus targeted distribution.

If you’re working with a large retailer or wholesaler (think Pottery Barn, Target, or CB2), you may want to consider an exclusive license or transfer of your rights. In doing this, you will either give up (assign or transfer, in legal parlance) all of your rights in the copyright, or assure the buyer that they are the one and only able to use your work (via an exclusive license).

Depending on how you structure your license or assignment, your fee will vary. An exclusive license or assignment will typically command a higher price, because of the opportunities you are giving up, and the value that the buyer is getting, being the only one that can use your work. A non-exclusive license will likely command little at first, but the cumulative fees over time, as your work is used repetitively, may be higher, depending on the volume and ways it is used.

You can also allow essentially endless viewing and individual consumption of your work but limit any further use by simply reserving all rights in your work. This will allow users to view your work, but will not allow for any redistribution or use without a further license or transfer. It will serve as a preview, possibly with hopes that the sneak peak will entice buyers, or exclusive deals without giving rights to any broader audience.

Alternatively, and especially for those artists with the goal of exposure, you can dedicate your work to the public domain. This will allow the public to use your work as they see fit. You will not be paid for your work, and it may be reproduced or used in other derivative work.

The downside to granting very broad use, especially if you grant the right to commercial use, is that you work may show up in places or ways you didn’t anticipate and may not agree with. It could show up as the background for a group or cause you don’t agree with, for example, or appear on merchandise you find inappropriate.


As with all contract drafting, you, as a party to the deal, have the right to structure it any way you see fit. This includes fees, control, and use. Before agreeing to anything, especially with large buyers of work who have their own non-negotiable terms, make sure you understand and can live with what you are agreeing to. In the future you may wish that you’d maintained more control, even if right now you could really use the cash. Shake’s photography licensing agreement can help.