Dear photographers, Lady Gaga wants the copyright on your work

Lady Gaga with Cher
The Associated Press thinks it owns the copyright on this photo of Lady Gaga. (Photo by Matt Sayles)

Many pop stars impose annoying restrictions on photojournalists. Often the lenspeople can shoot only three songs, they can't use flashes, and they have to stand way back by the soundboard instead of in front of the stage.

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Long story short

Lady Gaga demands you surrender (the ownership of photos of her)

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And then there are Lady Gaga's demands.

At her Verizon Center concert last week, photographers were given a "Photo Release Form" to sign. Many of the stipulations of the form TBD received (read it here!) are the sort of strict stuff you expect from stars who know darn well that media organizations need them way more than they need media organizations: You can't sell the photos, you can't use them for longer than four months, you can't use the images in ads.

The fourth paragraph, though, occasioned a phone call to TBD editors from Jay Westcott, TBD's photographer, when he read it over.

"Photographer hereby acknowledges and agrees that all right, title and interest (including copyright) in and to the Photograph(s) shall be owned by Lady Gaga and Photographer hereby transfers and assigns any such rights to Lady Gaga."

Even for an artist used to pushing boundaries, this is audacious, at least insofar as photographers are concerned. (Westcott says: "That's not cool. Not at all.") As the government says, copyright exists "the moment" a work "is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." For photographers this means that either they, or their employers, as is the case with Westcott, own the copyright the moment they press their shutter button.

"Some celebs do demand certain conditions on where photos will appear
and when, as Eminem did with us recently, but I never heard of this," says Doug Brod, who is the editor of Spin. Brod referred TBD to Jennifer Edmondson, a photo editor at the magazine. " I personally haven't encountered contracts as strict as Lady Gaga's but I don't usually work with such high profile artists," Edmondson writes in an e-mail. "However, I believe very specific and restrictive contacts are common with big name artists/celebrities."

Kyle Gustafson, a freelancer who shoots bands for the Washington Post, confirms the legal straitjacket. "It’s not uncommon," he says. "I didn’t shoot the Beastie Boys when they played V-Fest [then the Virgin Festival, now the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, the annual concert in Maryland] because they had a we-own-all-the-copyrights-to-all-the-photographs contract. That killed me," he says, because the Beasties are one of his favorite groups.

Westcott says he's encountered such a contract before with the Foo Fighters, who like the Beastie Boys are represented by the New York publicity firm Nasty Little Man. Steve Martin, who owns the firm, says those stipulations are up to the bands and their managers. He says neither Radiohead and Arcade Fire, both of which he works with, use photo releases. "[I]n my experience it often comes from artists who've been stuck having to pay a ton for a shot they want for a box set, merch, etc.," he writes in an e-mail. "[H]aving the parameters set for such transactions in a legal document can keep that from happening in the future."

One person who works with Lady Gaga and asked not to be quoted was surprised by the demand for copyright but questioned why photographers automatically own copyright on their work, since it's the artist who does the show (in Gaga's case, a very visual one).

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