An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters

Apr 9, 2015

Don Giannatti

Liron Samuels is a wildlife and commercial photographer based in Israel. When he isn’t waking up at 4am to take photos of nature, he stays awake until 4am taking photos of the night skies or time lapses. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Facebook.

An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters

Apr 9, 2015

Don Giannatti

Liron Samuels is a wildlife and commercial photographer based in Israel. When he isn’t waking up at 4am to take photos of nature, he stays awake until 4am taking photos of the night skies or time lapses. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Facebook.

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Sometimes we get stuck in the mire of our own making. Thank goodness we can find a pump around to dredge us out of the muck.

Last week an open letter dispute erupted on social media. That could be said of just about any week on social media, but this time it was about a photographer and a band who wanted to use a photograph.

I found myself intrigued but after reading both letters I felt more confused and chagrined at the situation than angry. It was a minor tempest in a teapot… one of those very small kids teapots because, let’s face it, not too many people even care about such things as this.

The photographer fired off a note after being contacted by the band for the free use of an image in a book they were doing.

Enter fireworks.

The photographer fired off a letter of outrage, demanding to be paid for the use of his photograph and he makes a very cogent point. Without being paid, we can not continue to make images for bands or anyone for that matter. It is what we do, and as such it should garner more respect.

The band fired back with claims that it is too expensive to create a photobook if they are going to pay royalties to every image. As well, they figured that since they already purchased the photograph, they believed they should be able to use it.


Let’s look at some realities:

The band:

“Any refusal of permission would be respectfully accepted and no further questions asked.”
– Garbage in open letter to Pat Pope.

A photobook with 200 photographs in it; at $350 per license, that comes to $70,000. The band claims that is too expensive for them to spend to do a book. They are most probably right. By the time you figure printing and shipping and distribution and design and copywriting and incidentals, the books are going to be very, very expensive. And then the price has to double at the bookstores so the stores can make money. Could be a run of 7000 books could cost $40 a piece. That comes to $280,000 upfront for the band. The $40 book then has to have a retail price of $80 a piece to allow for it to be sold… breaking even for the band.

I have written books that are sold in major bookstores so I can speak from experience when I say NO photobook for $80 is going to sell out quickly… if at all. If the print run was a thousand books, it could sell out in a year or so. But it would also be around $125 per book… so maybe all bets are off.

End game: The band is right.

It is too expensive to produce if the royalties are to be paid. Figure out a sponsorship or move on. It is a cold fact of life that many things we want to do are simply too expensive to do.

That is NOT a value judgement, it is a simple fact of business.

I think the band learned that because they previously purchased a license, it does not hold over to any future uses.

They also learned that a simple request, made in good faith could unleash a shit-storm that would drag their name through the mud. I guess that is a good lesson for us all. The social media mobs are unforgiving and – really – not very bright. They react the same way the immensely base Piranha do… form a gang and destroy.

The photographer:

“I’m a firm believer that musicians and artists deserve to be paid for their work. I’ll sign any petition that’s out there supporting that concept, and even when I choose to stream rather than buy, I’m one of the fans of your band that will pay for a premium service because I think you should be paid. That’s my point of view. Is it yours? When you think about artists being paid, does that include photographers? Do you think “content providers”, whatever the hell that means, deserve to be paid for their work, or is that a special category for musicians? If I want to release a music album, can I use your music in it if I give you a “proper credit”?”
— Pat Pope in open letter to band Garbage.

Wow. That is quite an angry response to a simple request.

I think it could have been handled another way. Going public without even contacting the band was, in my opinion, a little cheesy. But I am willing to cut some slack because we have all become a bit tense over big names using our shit for free. It isn’t right.

But neither is focusing your anger on the wrong perpetrators.

Being angry at the band, who simply asked, was misguided and off base. Of course they wanted to use it for free. We all want free stuff and we ask for it when we can. No harm. A simple “No, it would need to be licensed first” would have seemed more professional to me.

Nothing wrong with saying no. NO. It is easy… try it. “No.”

See. Easy.

However, the real problem makers in this whole debacle were never singled out for his ire, his rage, his being really perturbed. The perpetrators who caused this entire calamity were even pointed out by the band. They were identified and STILL no words of scathing indignation was turned toward them.

Who were they?

“We were so grateful and delighted to learn that most of the photographers were happy for their images to be seen in conjunction with the telling of our story.”
– Garbage in response to Pat Pope

You want to be mad at someone, just read the credits in the book when it comes out. Be mad at those who complied, not with those that requested. Being mad at someone who genuinely asked for permission first is – well – it’s offputting to me… since so many others said YES. Or choose not be be mad at all. Perhaps they saw fit to have their images in the book for reasons we may never know. Or should know.

My story is not your story… don’t try to write the paragraphs your way.

The real conundrum is where the line gets crossed between supporting one another and exploiting one another. It is not a fine line, it is wide and gray and sometimes hard to see. But it is there.

All in all it was great fun for the mobs… but it held little out for those of us who are wanting to get a little more serious about the dialog that needs to happen regarding usage of IP.

Until that happens… rock on, dudes (and dudettes).

About The Author

Don Giannatti is a photographer and author based in Phoenix, Arizona. He runs the Project 52 Pros workshop for aspiring commercial and editorial photographers. You can visit his website here, online portfolio here, and his wonderful lighting essentials here.

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10 responses to “An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters”

  1. Jürg Wolf Avatar
    Jürg Wolf

    And what about open letters that are sent to people who write open letters to open letter senders….?!
    Please let me also participate – I love those fuzzy games…!

  2. Rex Deaver Avatar
    Rex Deaver

    Thank you.

    There are times and places to donate photography. And it is, after all, the creator’s choice to do so or not; that is implicit in copyright. Nobody deserves to be vilified, and certainly not in public, for either asking OR donating.

    If your business model cannot survive that, the appropriate response is to get a new business model.

  3. Renato Murakami Avatar
    Renato Murakami

    You might be missing the point there Don.
    No one said it had to be X price. Pope said he was angry about they asking it for free, not for trying to negotiate a given sum. I don’t think he would even complain if the message he received was a standard negotiation deal.
    He also never said it would have to be $350 per photo, and that it would have to be $70000 for the whole book. You know and we all know that these sums are completely negotiable. Hell, he could even close the deal with $350 for ALL photos, but that’s not the issue.

    Also, if you read the final response of Pope, some of the answers for questions are right there. Why he didn’t just say no,why he felt attacked by the message, why he directed it at the band, among others. Of course, you can agree with his accessment or not. But I think there are some very reasonable explanations there – how people behind bands close up doors to photographers who don’t offer they work for free, etc.

    As for photographers who offer they work for free, it really is a grey line, I don’t think it’s worth going at. The basic idea is simple: there are pro photographers who wants exposure, there are amateur/hobbyist photographers that are not doing it for money, and there are pro photographers that rely on their work to make a living. No single argument will ever convince everyone going one way or another.

    I can’t condemn him for doing what he did because if I was in his position I think I’d do the same. It is kinda bad to do it directed against a band, but as people in the profession will know, nothing else gets attention these days. It’s a discussion that is often only triggered when something like this happens – which is what happened here. It’s basically becoming an institutionalized system that is killing jobs and people’s livelihoods (that of devaluement of professional photographers, I mean).

    Now, we can move forward with it by forcing it into discussion, or just keep mumbling to ourselves how the industry doesn’t respect the work of pro photographers and whatnot waiting for some solution to come out of nowhere. It’s a personal choice on what to do.

    Pope probably lost some reputation there and some clients, he’ll have to live with it. But he will also be receiving less requests of work giveaway for commercial projects and whatnot.

  4. Pablemus Papa Avatar
    Pablemus Papa

    I think Pat Pope over-reacted….

  5. catlett Avatar

    “End game: The band is right.”

    No the band isn’t right. There is no inherent right to release a photo book at your chosen cost structure just because you want to.

    The vehicle was an open letter but that is beside the point. The bigger point is that the person who penned the open letter is trying to get artists in different areas to understand that if they presume their art is worth money then all arts are worth money.

    I suppose congratulations to you though. You got a few clicks publicly demeaning the feelings and values fellow artists. That makes you a complete hypocrite considering the subject we are discussing but at any rate your narcissism got you some brief attention.

  6. Alan Avatar

    Asking for permission caused this?
    The people that are angry at this request should be ashamed of their reaction.
    Just say no. I do it very often when I am asked for things I don’t want to do.
    Nobody said “They have used your images without permission”. Move along, nothing to see here.

  7. Chris Hutcheson Avatar
    Chris Hutcheson

    I’m somewhat with Don on this. Recently an environmental group here in Toronto was looking (on Facebook and their website) for a photographer and a videographer to donate their time to shooting and recording a day long conference. This particular organization is well-known, extremely well funded and the specs they put out were clearly geared to people who had pro gear and pro experience. They could easily have afforded the fees for this kind of work. The usual “great exposure” line was pitched. Someone with the experience they were looking for would more than likely not need this “exposure.” It would probably have amounted to a short video of attendees on youtube and shots in a newsletter. Clearly a pro gig, and more than a few people called them on it. The disappointing thing, though, was the number of people who thought this was a good gig for either themselves or people they knew, and would willingly do the work for nothing. I’m sure they also might produce terrific results, for which they should be paid at least an honorarium. If for no other reason than to help all the people in the organization (who were probably on the payroll) understand that good photography has as much value as any other work being done. Sorry about the run on sentences…and yeah, I think the open letter approach in the instance discussed here was overkill.

  8. mike Avatar

    An open letter to the person that wrote this open letter about open letters….

    Actually I just wanted to be silly. This is an open letter to anyone that wants to listen.

    But really, couldn’t this have all been cleared up if people agreed on a contract before the photographer started snapping pictures? Why do people work freelance without a contract? (Note, I am not a professional photographer, but I have been a freelance software developer in the past. So my experience is from that regard, but IP is IP.) Contracts protect both parties from getting screwed. I don’t understand why people work without them when actual money is on the line. (more than $50 and pizza dinner sort of thing)

    In my case, if the customer wan’ts the source code so his cousin billy can edit it, that is fine, but it is going to be a much higher price. However, you can put the source code into escrow so that if I breach the contract (by suddenly deciding to charge double for changes), or if I die or decide I don’t want to do work for them anymore. This protects the customer from bad vendors, and gives them the piece of mind that you simply won’t run away with their money.

    Can’t the RAW files be put into an escrow to protect everyone? Yeah, yeah, it costs money, but it isn’t that much money when thousands of dollars are on the line.

  9. Doug Sundseth Avatar
    Doug Sundseth

    “You want to be mad at someone, just read the credits in the book when it comes out. Be mad at those who complied, not with those that requested.”

    I think not. If I* choose to give away work product for whatever reason, it’s my business. If you tell me you don’t like that, I’ll probably reply rudely if I reply at all.

    As much as you might want me to, I have no obligation to support your business model. If you can’t survive with that model without collusion, perhaps you should try a different model.

    * Caveat: None of the work in this book is mine. Further, I don’t do band photography. But I have given permission to groups to use my photography for free and will do so in the future if I think it appropriate. I have also told groups that a license fee was required. Either choice is at my sole discretion.

  10. Jim Johnson Avatar
    Jim Johnson

    A few years ago, I had a potential client come to me for a quote on some work. He owned a small business and wanted to shoot some marketing material for his company. When I gave him the quote, it was a lot higher than he expected and he became irate, called me names, and generally acted like an ass claiming I was trying to swindle him. Because he dedicated his life to building his business from nothing, his business was an extension of him and he took a simple business deal very personally. I never wanted to do business with him again after that.

    I think a lot of photographers (including Pat Pope) are like that. It’s THEIR art. It’s THEIR life and livelihood. They forget, though, they are a business to other people trying to do business with them. You need to be able to separate that from how you feel.