it should no longer shock me, but the harder one works at their photography business, pouring hours and money into it, exhaustively forging their own path to maintain their own creative style and business model, sadly, the more time one must spend protecting that business they’ve worked so hard to build. i am certainly not alone in this. and, after a rash of cases lately and long discussions with several very successful photographer friends, i am finally compelled to post a blog entry about protecting your photography business.
let’s first assume you’re not one of those who believe that the fast track to success is by using others’ business models, photos, style, creativity and ingenuity as your own personal road-map. instead, you work hard to pave your own path, cultivate your own style and develop your own business model and approach, avoiding the influence of others. if this is you, then it is my hope that this blog entry will provide a few pointers to help you protect your hard-earned business.
of course, in discussing business ‘protection’, i could go on about insurance — on equipment, on your studio, and so on — i could talk about the necessity for clear and concise contracts with your clients — private and commercial. i could write about all kinds of topics regarding ‘protection’ in the field of photography … however, my goal here is to enlighten a little in regards to protecting your business. and this entails far more than protecting your images from theft. but let’s touch on that aspect first…
Protecting your images
obviously, the first course of action in protecting your business is watermarking your images. every image you put out there on that wild-west web should carry a watermark. no exceptions. of course, the smaller the image, the less glaring the watermark needs to be. this is not necessarily an issue of protecting your images from your clients … at least, that’s the case in my business. far from it. i want my clients to have access to their images, to share on facebook, and to send to their Aunt Jean in Florida.
the reason i watermark is to protect the scruffy dog images from on-line theft (as best possible) since some of these images are used as stock for commercial and editorial projects. trust me, i have personally experienced many types of image theft, from businesses using SDP images for their own financial gain to a photographer (and i use the term loosely) copying several of my images and word-for-word text from my website, mounting them all as his own, and then advertising for photo sessions in my own shooting area!
and of course, sadly, there are those who will lift your images and crop out or remove your watermarks. i’ve even had some individuals place their OWN watermarks over the scruffy dog mark. so, watermarking is certainly not fool-proof. not by a long shot.
besides watermarking, there are, of course, amazing services like Digimarc for protecting your images, but – to my knowledge – this is something designed more for US photographers, geared towards the US market and US copyright laws, and does that exactly apply to Canadian photographers and our copyright laws.
of course, you could just not put your work out there, but that’s no way to grow your business, market yourself, and build a following.
and while on the subject, do be diligent in the creation of your watermark and the way in which you mark your images. logos are a TON of work … at least, good logos are. they can require months to develop and, often, a lot of money to a designer … and part of that work should be researching to be sure your mark isn’t similar to anyone else’s. make sure your watermark doesn’t simply look like everything else out there. again, be creative … after all, you want your business to stand out, correct? and a big component of that is your branding. there’s no point in protecting something that’s been lifted from someplace else.
so … you’ve got yourself a gnarly logo, and you’re protecting your images. awesome. what next? well, how about your name and your hard-earned reputation?
a lot of consideration should go into choosing your business name. do you use your own given name? or do you come up with a catchy business name that perhaps gives a sense of what your business is about? there are many reasons to choose the former, and just as many reasons to choose the latter. if you’re after more about what goes into choosing a name for your business, let me offer you this fun article by James, Taylor, How to Name Your Photography Business. but this is not a blog entry about how to choose your business name … it’s about protecting that name once you’ve finally settled on one.
one of the many reasons that a lot of photographers choose to use their own name is that there is no need to trademark your own given name. it is already your name, your identity. easy peasy. no crazy legalities, no huge investment in trademarking and lawyer’s fees. it’s you! but if you do choose to use a business name – like scruffy dog photography – then a lot more goes into protecting that name and the brand you are creating to go along with it.
first off, if you haven’t already named you business or are considering a change, be sure to research your chosen name extensively. exhaustively! there is no one source for conducting these kinds of searches, but i have to believe that most of you have basic Googling skills. use ‘em.
there is nothing worse than your business being confused with another – whether it’s local, the other side of the country, or around the world. it’s a recipe for confusion amongst potential clients (whether they be private clients or commercial) and is obviously just bad business in a field that is very web-driven and, as such, very global. but name-confusion could be the least of your troubles if you choose to use a business name that is already in use and trademarked by someone else. you could find yourself in a deep pot of hot legal soup.
so … if your chosen business name isn’t already in use, the most important next step in protecting your name is trademarking it. this is an expense most businesses incur when starting up, and photography should be no different. why? because photography is such a web-driven profession and there truly is very little difference between a “.com” and a “.ca”. of course, it’s on account of a photography’s business being more ‘global’ (especially if you’re selling stock or shooting commercially), that protecting your business name by registering a trademark should be seriously considered. however, this venture is not an inexpensive one. far from it. registering the “scruffy dog” name came with an almost $11,000 price-tag, and it’s a never-ending process. it’s no wonder that the majority of photographers choose to use their own names!
but failing to register a trademark means you have far less ground to stand on when it comes to others deciding that they like your business name and will use it for their own. and trust me, when you invest this much into your business – in both finances and time – you’re going to protect it. again, this is a road i’ve been down personally … and not just once! and in all cases, i could only shake my head as i perused the analytics for my site and blog, and could actually count the number of visits from these other individuals immediately prior to their choosing my business’ name or one “confusingly similar” for their own.
for you US photographers, here is a link on how to protect your business name, in regards to trademarking.
unfortunately, even once you have spent thousands and slogged through all the legalities and time to register your business’ unique name (and maybe even your tagline), it doesn’t end there! you now have the perpetual task of protecting your ‘mark’ from those who simply don’t understand or perhaps don’t respect the significance of a trademark. precious time can be lost in following up on any infringements of your mark, but you simply must follow up. as my lawyers say, if you don’t follow up, it dilutes your hard-earned mark and eventually that mark will mean nothing. so it’s important to maintain the integrity and ownership of your mark. this, of course, requires retaining lawyers (typically the ones who did all of your initial trademarking), and it also requires keeping your ear to the ground when it comes to copycats.
one way of keeping your ear to the ground is through Google Alerts. once you’ve got your name properly registered (if you go that route), make sure you sign up for Google Alerts … it will let you know whenever your business name is mentioned anywhere online.
… and finally we arrive at the issue of copying and plagiarism. this can come in the form of the copying of your business model, advertisements, marketing ventures, social media practices, and style … all the way down to outright plagiarism of text directly from your website, blog, client information, and any other business ‘copy’. and yes, sadly, scruffy dog has been a victim of all the above, countless times now.
Plagiarism and copying
in this arena, it’s all about paying heed to the warnings of others, and acting on them. with the amazing following that has been built with scruffy dog over the years (which, trust me, takes a lot of work too!), i have ears and eyes everywhere. and it is those eyes and ears of concerned followers, extremely supportive clients, and fellow photographers that catch 99% of the cases of image theft, plagiarism, passing-off-as, and other outright copying, and they alert me to them. in fact, there was only one case of copyright infringement that i actually caught myself … and it was a complete fluke … stumbling upon one of my most popular images on a dog supply website while i was on the phone with the company placing my order!
given the rampant copying that goes on in this industry – whether it’s style, business practices, advertising and marketing approaches, even outright plagiarism of copy from sites – it’s clear that:
(a) there are a lot of photographers out there – pros, dabblers, and hobbyists; and
(b) a lot of them are only out for some fast track to the success they see others building.
as a very good friend of mine, who also happens to be a highly successful and talented photographer, recently wrote: “I often wonder where half the photographers would be without the internet or Pinterest to show them what they should be photographing and how.”
trust me, there is no fast track to success. to cultivate genuine success and a truly unique business that is fully yours – your style, your business ethics, your marketing approach, your branding, and your social media presence – well, that takes time … it takes a mountain-load of brainstorming, ingenuity and constantly thinking outside the box, not to mention, a lot of money. unfortunately a lot of photographers don’t seem to grasp this … which leads to the incredible glut of cookie-cutter photographers we have today. blogs and websites all start looking the same, photos appear confusingly familiar because styles are mimicked, and eventually (or very quickly) even your own original ideas are swallowed up by others … leaving your faint stroke of ‘originality’ in an otherwise highly-saturated market looking absolutely mundane in very short time.
and believe me, i’m well aware that trying to come up with a new idea isn’t easy … and there is a good level of truth in the adage that there are no more original ideas. of course it’s possible for two people, or several!, to come up with the same idea — whether it’s a business idea, a photographic idea, a name, etc. the trick is to recognize when these instances of similarities are merely coincidence or when they are actual copying … repeated offenses by the same individual(s). i never … never jump to the conclusion of ‘copy’, and always believe in the best in people. i always want to suspect coincidence first … until the evidence starts to mount… this is when, unfortunately, action must be taken, before it gets out of hand.
so what can you — hardworking, creative, respectful and socially conscious photographer — do? well, besides addressing the obvious culprits — whether that entails legal action or not — the most important thing you can do is to just keep on plowing. stick to the row you are hoeing, regardless of who is following in your tracks and picking at all of the hard work and time you have sunk into your business. i simply have to believe that karma is a bitch, and that these individuals who — for whatever reason — are unable to think and create for themselves and who use the hard work of others as their personal instruction manual in some delusional fast-track will simply fizzle and fade, having no true spark of their own. …and that, in the end, the genuine creative forces in this industry will always shine bright.
and finally, i thought i’d share this little video blog from Marie Forleo that i stumbled on the other day … stick with it, she has some good things to say about business copycats.