Jonathan Worth took this photograph of Diane Smyth, deputy editor of BJP, and made it freely available using a Creative Commons CC BY-SA licence - which means it can be freely copied, distributed, transmitted and adapted, but it must be attributed to the photographer.
Jonathan Worth says abandoning traditional copyright in favour of Creative Commons sharing has saved his portrait business
Author: Diane Smyth
09 Sep 2011
Sharing your images for free is a surefire way to lose money, right? Wrong, according to Jonathan Worth. A successful portrait photographer, he says that ditching strict copyright in favour of a Creative Commons licence that allows free non-commercial use has actually saved his business.
"Previously, I would track down every use of my image everywhere, on every blog and send out vitriolic take-down notices," he says. "Then I'd find it being run by some weeping 14-year-old girl in middle America who's a Heath Ledger fan and just loved the picture. I'd feel really bad and say they could keep it as long as they linked the image back to me, and then I'd feel so bad I'd send them an exclusive out-take print. I was wasting a lot of time and stress, but then I did always notice a flurry of interest in my work afterwards coming from that blog.
"Then I met Cory Doctorow, a writer who is giving his work away for free and expecting to receive $50,000 back. He said the publicity he gains from it adds value to his work, and that publishing a free ebook online doesn't mean he doesn't sell hardback copies - in fact he sells more of them. He suggested I try it out so I put a hi-res picture online for free, and made 111 signed prints of the image. I ended up with a fight over the last ones and made a net profit of £800."
Worth is now a dedicated Creative Commons fan, usually using the CC BY-NC - which requires that commercial users pay for it, and that he is always credited. Non commercial users are free to use it as they choose. Creative Commons has six separate licences that allow photographers to retain copyright but share their work plus two licences stating that the copyright holder has waived his or her rights altogether. The organisation recently launched a publication, The Power of Open, which sets out the terms of each licence, and included several case studies, including Worth's experience.
"It's not a silver bullet but it was ground-breaking for me," he says. "By making fans part of the process, they effectively do my publicity. I'm represented by Google now, and because I'm not paying for an agent I can sell for less and still make a profit."
To Worth, copyright laws are part of a 20th century legal framework that doesn't fit 21st century technology or practices, and like Fred Ritchin, author of After Photography, he believes digital capture and distribution have fundamentally changed photography so much that we're now living in a "post-photographic" society. Worth has written two experimental classes with input from Ritchin, Photography and Narrative (#PHONAR) and Picturing the Body (#PICBOD), which were written for Coventry University but are freely available online and address the radical changes in photography.
As the course catalog reads: "The role of photographer (mode of information) as supplier to old media (mode of distribution) no longer exists - that link has been broken. We recognise [sic] instead the need to redefine the role of the contemporary photographer as publisher."
"Stephen Mayes [managing director of VII Photo] has been very helpful - he helped me write a BA class," says Worth. "He says VII had to rethink their product, and maybe that isn't photography - VII makes images and stories, but its product is integrity. It's a trusted source. I've tried to apply that to my own practice. The technical barriers to photography have been removed, anyone can make an image now, so what separates me and my work? Trust - a contract to photograph Heath Ledger is all about trust."
Jonathan Worth is currently taking part in Aperture's What Matters Now series of events.
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