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Jeff Sedlik: Navigating the Licensing Waters

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PhotoMedia's 2006 Photography Person of the Year: Jeff Sedlik PhotoMedia's 2006 Photography Person of the Year: Jeff Sedlik
© James Dejauregui

Best known for his award-winning advertising images and jazz portraits, is embarking on a quest to establish international image licensing standards for the good of all photographers.

Imagine a man in his mid-40s, with short, dark hair and a slight five-o'clock shadow, standing in the center of a life raft with a camera in one hand and a paddle in the other. This is a good visual metaphor for the work of Jeff Sedlik, award-winning photographer and industry mover and shaker. A rising tide lifts all boats, so the saying goes, and if Sedlik has his way, the photography tide is about to get higher. Besides maintaining a successful career as a high-level advertising photographer, he's dedicated to buoying the profession as a whole and teaching other photographers to navigate the rising waters.

Sedlik works tirelessly to help make sure that photographers can make a living, both by impressing upon them the importance of business skills and by trying to create an environment in which their work is valued and used fairly. In 2004, he co-founded the nonprofit PLUS Coalition (www.useplus.com), whose acronym stands for Picture Licensing Universal System. The group is establishing much-needed international standards for image licensing.

Sedlik also is a veteran professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., a consultant and expert witness on photography-related issues, and past national president of the Advertising Photographers of America (APA). He runs a fine-art publishing business, Mason Editions, and directs videos and television commercials, too.

"One thing you should know about Jeff is that he is essentially a vampire; the man never sleeps," says Jeffrey Burke, PLUS chairman and co-founder. "He's one of the hardest-working guys in the photo industry."

One look at Sedlik's posters of jazz greats confirms his knack for capturing the compelling idiosyncrasies of a human subject's features, expressions and gestures. It's a sensibility that he's been cultivating for a long time.

"Back when I was about six years old or so, my dad gave me a camera, and I started taking pictures of my friends," he says. That was only the beginning. Sedlik really got hooked on the medium two years later, when his father took him to New York City for the first time. "I looked up through the viewfinder at the Empire State Building," he recalls, "and I knew I loved this thing."

His love transformed into a career choice when he took photography classes with instructor Warren King at Reseda High School in California in the late 1970s. The photography program was very advanced for high school, says Sedlik. Professional photographers visited classes, and students sometimes found opportunities to dip their toes into the professional pond.

Sedlik picked up some photography jobs at that time, including a stint shooting still images for the Emmy-winning TV program "Talk About Pictures," which featured interviews with legendary photographers. That project gave him the notion that he could make a living in photography.

"I also got the sense, right then and there, that this was a business," he says. This insight has informed the rest of his career, from his creative work for clients to his teaching, to his involvement with trade organizations.

"Jeff's been very instrumental in the industry. He's had a big presence," says George Fulton, who took over as APA president after Sedlik's term. "He's had a legacy of working hard on two fronts. One is the business acumen of photographers, and secondly, his emphasis has always been very much focused on advocacy.

"These days, we've got one or two voices that really ring loud and that truly do attempt to call photographers to order," says Fulton, "and one of the loudest and clearest and most trustworthy of those voices is Jeff."

The business of art

After four years at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where his studies included both art and business, Sedlik attended the Art Center College of Design and trained in photography and film. He appreciates the strong technical and conceptual training that he received there from successful working photographers, as well as the business curriculum.

"I have always been a huge proponent of photographers' learning the principles of business, reading every book they can get their hands on about subjects like negotiating, business administration, leadership, marketing," Sedlik says. You can be the best at what you do, he says, but fail because you don't know how to operate effectively in the marketplace. "The photographers who constantly have to fight to pay their bills need to consider that they might be doing something wrong," he suggests.

"Professional photography is much more than an art form. It's a business," he says. "You need to generate revenue, but that alone isn't enough. To succeed, you need to maintain copyright ownership in your photographs, and then generate an ongoing revenue stream from each image by strategically licensing your work."

Most of Sedlik's professional photographic work has been for advertising use, but he has worked in other genres, including photojournalism, corporate photography and editorial assignments. His fine-art prints also hang in collections worldwide.
Although his commercial work helps support his more personal projects, not to mention his family, it's more than a means to an end. No matter what kind of project he's working on, "I make it personal for myself when I shoot it," he says. As a result, he enjoys all kinds of photography.

Can we talk?

Sedlik's passion for both the artistic and the commercial aspects of photography led him to found PLUS along with Burke and longtime photo agent and consultant, Jane Kinne. PLUS is a nonprofit coalition of trade organizations that represent all sectors of the industry, and Sedlik is its president and CEO. The group's goal is to facilitate image licensing for the benefit of both image makers and image users.

The idea that grew to become PLUS was Sedlik's, says Burke, who both admires and shares his motivations. "He's doing it not because he's going to make money or he's going to personally benefit," says Burke, but rather because he sees the opportunity to make a difference. "The photography industry needs something like this that's going to move the industry into the 21st century."

"Copyright is the fire that burns at the center of any photography business," says Sedlik. It was devised, before photography even existed, to benefit society by encouraging the creation of new works through limited protection of the creator's right to receive funds and benefits in exchange for use of the creation. Society benefits immediately when an image is created, and also benefits later when the copyright term expires and the work is owned by the public.

"What many photographers don't understand is that they are not in the business of selling photographs, and they are not in the business of selling their time — or they shouldn't be," Sedlik says. "They are in the business of licensing their copyrights."

Many photographers charge daily or hourly rates, which is a dead-end street and results in misunderstandings regarding the value and ownership of the work, he explains. A photograph, he says, should never be valued in terms of the time it takes to create it. Instead, photographers should leverage their rights under the law and license usage rights to clients, basing fees on the extent to which the images will be used.

One factor that makes this difficult is that the industry has had no real standards for how licenses are written or how to attach a license to an image. Even when the license is available, Sedlik says, it is easily and commonly misinterpreted, because until now, there has been no standardized resource for determining the meanings of the words used in licenses. This leads to misunderstandings, damaged relationships and, sometimes, legal conflicts, he says.

As a result, clients are moving away from using rights-managed images, which are more profitable for photographers and stock agencies and often more effective for clients in terms of both quality and cost. Instead, they're seeking royalty-free images and demanding copyright transfers and work-for-hire terms. "Clearly, the industry needs a simpler system that allows photographers and their clients to avoid misunderstandings," Sedlik says.

Enter PLUS. To start bringing clarity and consistency to the licensing process, Sedlik and his partners at PLUS embarked on a colossal effort to create a standardized glossary of licensing-related terms for industry-wide use. They collected glossaries from trade organizations and individuals worldwide, merged and edited them, and sent a series of drafts out for review and comment by hundreds of professionals in the imaging industry.

In October 2005, the PLUS board — which includes a seat for each industry sector: creators, picture archives, design and advertising, publishers and a multi-industry group — approved "version 1.0" of the PLUS Image Licensing Glossary, Sedlik says. Currently published on the PLUS web site, the glossary is available for use at no charge and will be updated periodically. There also are plans to translate the document into many languages and to offer printed versions, he adds.

Untangling the licensing snarl

The two other pillars of PLUS's standardization efforts are its forthcoming Media Matrix and its License Data Format. The matrix will serve as a standard reference that categorizes the ways that a licensed image can be used. For instance, the category of outdoor usage will include specific subcategories, such as billboards and sides of buses. Right now, stock agencies and photographers typically each use their own matrices. Despite similarities, there's no real consistency.

"Why can't we all just work from the same page?" Sedlik asks.

PLUS has the support of the three major stock agencies — Getty Images, Corbis and Jupitermedia Corp. — along with many smaller agencies, all of which have given input to the project. Now the PLUS team is working to merge this data into a single standardized matrix, get it approved by all industries and make it available for use, Sedlik says.

The PLUS License Data Format will identify a standard set of elements to be included in a license and a standard order in which these elements appear. Currently, photographers, stock agencies and representatives use different formats for describing their licenses. Although most specify the same basic parameters — the licensor and licensee names, the kinds of media that the image can be used in, the length of time, the region and so forth — they use different terminology, list elements in different orders and sometimes leave out parameters that can be important to define. This makes it difficult for people to read and accurately interpret each new license they see, says Sedlik, and completely impossible for a computer to read and analyze a license.

When the PLUS License Data Format is established, license preparation and interpretation should get easier for everyone. The common elements and order are the keys.

"Finally, we'll have licenses that can be read and tracked by computers," Sedlik says. Then a license can be embedded into the digital file that is delivered to the client, and anyone who gets their hands on that image file will have access to the most critical elements of the license as well.

PLUS and its partners, such as Adobe Systems, also are working on technology to ensure that the PLUS License Data Format is broadly supported in imaging and digital asset management applications. In addition, the format will be incorporated into the capture software in cameras so that license information can be embedded in each image as the photographer shoots.

Sedlik expects that both the Media Matrix and the License Data Format will be available for free this year on the PLUS web site.

Giving back, looking ahead

"I'm doing this because I believe that every person in every profession needs to participate in their community, not just for their own gain," says Sedlik. "I know that I'm not in a position to save the world, but I am in a position to achieve real, lasting benefits for the community of photographers."

In an arena as competitive as photography, where photographers often behave like lone wolves fighting over scarce jobs, Sedlik says that he is among those working for the good of the whole — and he seems to be succeeding. He describes the level of participation, goodwill and international cooperation among PLUS stakeholders as "unprecedented."
"This I'm proud of," he says.

Sedlik has another crusade: preparing photographers for continued consolidation in the industry. The trends in the market show that there will be fewer stock agencies, fewer ad agencies and fewer publishers, which will own a greater percentage of the magazines on the racks. To survive professionally, photographers will have to make some changes, says Sedlik.
"The mantra of all photographers should be ‘diversify,'" he says.

If photographers aren't already doing so, he advises, they should think about alternatives — generating assignment work; doing stock photography; creating greeting cards, posters and calendars; making fine-art prints for galleries; and so on.

He even suggests investing time and money in ventures unrelated to photography so that one is not as vulnerable to the ups and downs of the photographic marketplace.This advice can be a hard pill to swallow, Sedlik adds, but it's important. "Now, more than ever before, photographers need to be businesspeople," he says.

Sedlik practices the diversification mantra himself. He works out of studios in Los Angeles and New York City, with a client list that includes Nike, FedEx, Microsoft and Bank of America. In addition, he sells his prints through galleries and has sold more than 100,000 posters of his work through his publishing company, Mason Editions. Currently, he's working on three personal photographic book projects, including one called "The Spirit of Spain," which features portraits of extraordinary Spaniards in a variety of fields, from guitar makers to matadors.

Sedlik is considered a leading expert on photography copyright issues and owns a consulting business in which he helps photographers negotiate amicable settlements in the event of disputes. He also is an expert witness in legal matters involving copyright, model releases, contract disputes, lost film and other photography-related matters.

Teaching is part of both Sedlik's community service ethic and his mission to prepare photographers for the business world in which they'll operate. "I'm very, very passionate about it," he says. "When I'm overwhelmed with photography jobs and my work for PLUS, I've tried to take time off from teaching, but each time, I've had to go back to class. It's really important to me."

Besides teaching photographic techniques, he also instructs students in — what else? — business.

"I'm helping them understand and master their craft, and I'm helping them be able to understand what it takes to earn a living," he says — just as he hopes to help everyone in the industry create images that are not only compelling but also profitable.

Adam Crawford
Story Author: Adam Crawford

Adam Crawford is a photographer and writer residing in Venice, Calif.  He recently became associate editor of Rangefinder and AfterCapture magazines.

Website: www.rangefindermag.com E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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