What should I do if I have a newsworthy photo or video?

I often have a small digital camera with me. It even shoots MPEG video. Suppose, by some horror, that a plane crashes in my view, or some other newsworthy event happens. I, of course, will employ my cat-like reflexes and whip out my trusty camera. I’ll snap many pictures, and maybe even shoot video.

What then?

I would want the authorities investigating the plane crash or whatever to have access to my testimony and information. However, I would not want CNN or the newspapers to make big bucks selling my pictures. While I would be happy to share my pictures and information, I would not want to be taken advantage of.

So, how do I assist the investigation while protecting my commercial rights? How do those home-made pictures and videos end up in the papers and on TV?

I don’t actually have pictures of a disaster, but I thought it might be good to be prepared. :slight_smile:

If it were a plane crash or similar, I’d pass it on to the police.

Nobody can (legally) make money from it unless you allow them to - you are automatically the corpyright-holder of the image/video. In many cases of amateur snapshots (Concorde on fire comes to mind), it’s been sold to a media organisation such as AP, who then have the rights to sell it on again for publications.

The problem is that the police have no incentive to see your pictures released to the media. If they have your film and decide to hold it for a couple of weeks while they conduct their investigation, its value will drop to virtually nothing. What newspaper or television station is going to pay for pictures of a plane crash that happened two weeks ago?

I recommend you get a lawyer first thing. He can advise you on the legal responsibilities. Then contact the media services (you might want your lawyer to do this as well) and start a quick bidding war. Remember that the value is going to quickly peak and start dropping. Make it one of the conditions of the sale that the police have to be granted full access to the film.

There’s a big, unspoken But attached to this statement:

*But everybody can make money from your pictures unless you hire an attorney to protect your rights. *

Copyright defense is expensive.

Big media are far too aware of the legalities of the situation to use a picture without permission.

Put it out under the Creative Commons license, which is positioned somewhere between copyright and the public domain. Read more here and watch this short intro film.

Just as a side note: A number of amateurs have won Pulitzer prizes for the photographs they took when they happened to be around when a “newsworthy event happen[ed]”.

I always take inspiration from the story of Mrs. Walter M. Schau who had an old Kodak Brownie in the back of her car when she spotted a truck dangling precariously over the side of a bridge. She took the shot and became the first woman to ever win a Pulitzer for photography back in 1954.

      • FIRST you make a copy of it that you give to the police, THEN you give the original to the police. This used to be a major hassle with film, but digital media now makes it easy. News organizations will hear about it from the police report, and will come calling on you if they are interested. NEVER give your only copy to the police, if you can at all avoid it. The police (at least in the US) have no duty to provide you with another copy at all. Ever. They may act nice and say they will, but they do not have to, even if one of the police officers told you that they would.
      • Duhhh–that should read “first you make a copy for yourself, then you give the original to the police”… :smack: The police will be wanting the original, and news organizations won’t care which they get as long as it’s complete and not edited. …A local newspaper jouralist told me this by the by. Lots of pictures disappear into the police station and do not emerge until after the trial is over, if they are not lost before then.

Well, if it is something that you have multiple pictures of (let’s keep with the theme of a plane crash) ten couldn’t you give some to the police and sell others? Surely in those photos are some that are close enough to previous photos as to provide no extra information to investigators, and as such could be sold?

And even if you don’t give any to the police/FBI/FAA/whoever, they will eventually see them when the media plasters them all over the front page. Of course, since the best they will have to look at is a reproduction in cheap-as-possible newsprint, they would certainly have preferred you give them copies. Which is anotyher point, would it be legal to give one copy to investigators and sell one copy to the media?

So, how is it done?

Here’s my entirely fictional sequence of events:

“Oh my gosh, that plane is going to crash!”

I pull out my digital camera and start snapping pictures. The crash is some distance away, so I am not in danger of being inured by the downed airliner, nor am I in a position to offer immediate assistance to those who are involved.

I call 911 and tell the operator that I just saw an airliner crash in XYZ neighborhood. I am unable to give a clear address because my view doesn’t permit me to see exactly where the ruins are. Really, would this be an issue, anyway? Would the 911 operator ask me to describe what I saw? I would imagine that the call center would be inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of calls describing the same plane crash. It seems like that would be a poor use of time, since, even with a plane crash, the normal calls to a big-city 911 center would continue.

What if I’m not in the city? I actually live in a small town (pop ~5000). Planes travelling between Austin and Houston regularly pass high overhead. We don’t get many high-casualty disasters here, though we do practice for a school bus crash.

So, now the authorities are alerted. I call my attorney. Oops, he was on the downed flight. I call another attorney. He says that he doesn’t deal in media issues and to call so-and-so. It’s Saturday night, anyway. Lots of lawyers at work at this hour.

So, I call the local CBS affiliate (because I like their news program better than the other Austin channels). I tell them that I have pictures of the plane as it’s crashing. They’re great, too, with flames flying from the engines and a great picture of the tail falling off. Would they like to run the pictures on their newscast?

So, now what? Would the TV station take the pictures? Do they offer me compensation? Naturally, I would want to save the pictures to my own computer before giving up the data card. Since they’re digital, would original vs. copy really be an issue. I could even email them to the TV reporter. How do I make sure they’ll properly credit me (and my bank account).

It’s not that I would want to make a fortune off of others’ tragedy, but wouldn’t the TV station or network be making bucks off of my wonderful pictures? If so, I should get a piece of it.

When does the FAA knock on my door? Am I in trouble for not calling them? I assume they’ll want my eye-witness description of what I saw happen. Do they just get the pictures from the TV station?

Big media companies have well-thought-out procedures for such situations. Their representatives will have a stock supply of forms you can sign which transfer all rights (and they will be all rights) in return for a fixed fee. (I vaguely remember hearing that the guy who took the picture of Concorde in flames at takeoff got something like £600 for it…yes, it’s not a lot, but as has been mentioned, you can’t spend weeks hawking it around because every minute and hour is depreciating the value).

In my years of buying freelance video for network television, I’ve never had anybody sign anything except an invoice, but I’m a nice non-litiginous Canuck :wink:

Typically, if you have pictures or video of some monumentous event, and you call up your local TV station, we’ll want to take a look at it before deciding to buy: your video may be so shaky as to be unusable (or more common: you zoom in and out repeatedly). If you’re a regular, I’ll probably take it sight-unseen (since I’m already , but if you screw me, it’ll be the last sale you make for a very long time.

For where I work, I buy first rights, and broadcast rights in perpetuity not only for my station, but for my network as well, although the network may not use 'em. And you’ll maintain the right to resell your video to another station. (And I’ll copy your tape if you want-- no skin off my nose if you keep the original.) However if your tape is incredible, and is the only video of an event (and for a plane crash, that’s actually pretty unlikely, surprising as it sounds), I’ll want exclusive rights, in which case you’ll be able to increase your fee.

In the extremely rare case that some investigative agency wants a copy of your video (I’ve only seen in happen when cops are investigating riots) the police will typically see the tape on the tube, come talking to the station, then go off and get a warrant to get a copy of the tape.

A relevant article:


The Concorde pix stories was all the buzz in photojournalism circles…mainly that the Hungarian student got majorly taken advantage of. The picture should have sold easily from $50-$100K.

Anyhow, with still photos, the plan of action is this: Call up a picture agency. Screw the wires, the agencies will be able to negotiate better rates for you usually (Getty, Corbis, Zuma, etc…) Now here’s where your negotiation skills take effect. Personally, I would not try selling the image for a one-time fee. The normal agency cut for resales is 50%. I would try to negotiate a 75% cut of their resale fee. Keep the rights to your photograph. Allow the agency to sell your photo (you can even give them an exclusive right to sell it for a period of time, say a few years), but retain the right to the picture if you can.

For me, that’s the best way. Let the agency handle all the big-time negotiations, I just handle the deal with the agency, and everybody has incentive to bring in the top price for your photo. Just make sure you have all your paperwork in order.

That may work if you have a truly historic photo, but don’t forget, with a news photo, timing is everything. If your photo isn’t available immediately, chances are its worth next to nothing.

My suggestion would be to go to the TV stations. There’s generally only one newspaper in a market, publishing once a day. That same market could easily have four tv news operations with four newscasts each.

Of course I’m talking about seriously newsworthy events, along the lines of the Concorde crash, the Oklahoma City bombing, WTC, etc… And I am speaking from the POV of a photojournalist. I understand the importance of timing—I was a stringer for one of the wires—and your negotiating should take advantage of this fact. You can’t dilly dally for more than a couple hours with historic stills. You might have better pictures than everyone else, but if yours aren’t the first on the market, their value can drop considerably.

Like I said, best course of action financially is to hit the agencies quick with your stills, hammer out a contract in an hour or less. You can use the pressure of time as negotiating leverage. If one agency is hemming and hawing too much, move on.

If you have something a little less dramatic—say a Cessna going down—you can just call up the photo editor at the local paper or the local AP bureau. For an AP/Reuters/AFP pic, you can expect $150-$225 and the waiving of all your resale rights. You may be able to negotiate this depending on the newsworthiness of your pictures.

One more thing I forgot to mention:

Yes, there’s only one or two dailies in every major city, but still photos are used beyond just newspapers and magazines. Just think of the sales to the hundreds or thousands of news websites, plus all the television stations in the world. How many times did we see that still photo of the Concorde on TV? Everywhere that image was used, someone paid Reuters money for the right to reproduce it.

You don’t have the time or the resources to deal with 1000s of clients at once, and hence an agency is your best bet.