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D.I.Y. Musician: The Right Image

March 1, 2011
Randy Chertkow

Randy Chertkow

Jason Feehan

Jason Feehan

A musician''s world is not just about audio, it''s also visual. The Web is full of images, all of which shape the way you appear to potential fans. But images are copyrighted and musicians need to know the rules, especially when using them on their albums. Services that manufacture discs or provide digital distribution require you to sign a form that states you have the rights for all of the intellectual property you''re using—not just the music, but also the art.

It''s at this stage that a lot of musicians realize they didn''t secure all the rights for their images. The time to sort this out is before you hire a photographer or someone to create your graphics. It also helps to know a few legal alternatives to acquiring images royalty-free.

Just like music is copyrighted the moment you record it, photos are instantly copyrighted the second a photographer snaps the shutter. The same rule applies with graphic artists and the artwork they create. What may not necessarily be clear is that even if you''re paying the photographer or graphic artist, he or she owns the copyright to the images unless there''s an agreement that states otherwise. This means you have to get permission each time you use a copyrighted image you don''t control, usually requiring a fee for each use. If you end up printing 1,000 copies of your album, that can get costly.

To avoid this, get it in writing that the engagement is a “work-for-hire” when employing a photographer or graphic artist. A work-for-hire means that you will own the copyright to those images. Some photographers might balk at doing a work-for-hire (and may charge a higher rate to give you this option), but the time to work this out is beforehand, not when you''re about to make an album and learn the perfect cover shot is controlled by the photographer. Even though it''s a work-for-hire, you should still give attribution to the photographer for the images wherever you use them. This is a good b

argaining chip to offer when negotiating the agreement. If you still need to search the Web for that perfect image, there are options to explore. Creative Commons has a set of licenses that many graphic artists and photographers use for their work that allow other people the right to use it for free, as long as you give attribution to the owner, which is easy to do and something the owners deserve. To find images licensed in this way, check out and make sure the license search allows for “commercial use” as it''s likely you''ll be selling your album. Even if you find images that are licensed only for noncommercial use, you can still contact the owner and work out a deal. Some owners are happy to have their work used on an album and may let you use it for attribution or a nominal fee.

A second option is to use royalty-free images from services such as or Some of these services require an annual membership fee for access to their entire catalog, while others allow you to download any image for a one-time fee. Either way, once paid, you can use the royalty-free image again and again and keep whatever you make from it.

Lastly, you can use images in the public domain (anything created by the U.S. government, such as any of NASA''s photos). Check out Wikipedia''s public domain image resource page for additional resources.

No matter what you do with your images, knowing these factors ahead of time will help you better engage graphic artists and photographers. If you work an arrangement ahead of time, the rights—and the profits—for both your music and all of your photos will be all yours.

Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are the authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide.

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