Thursday, July 1, 2010

Press Releases: Wrong, Right

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You probably missed the kerfuffle over the rules governing media access to particular areas of this weekend's Nateva Music and Camping Festival, and over what (if any) rights news photographers would have to the images they made during the multi-day event. But it's an important lesson in how lawyers try to control media access, and the reversal — and happy transparency — that can develop when actual company leaders retake the reins from the attorneys.

The furor began with an awkwardly worded e-mail on June 22, from Elevate Communications, a Boston-based public-relations firm handling various tasks relating to the festival, including coordinating attendance by members of the media. The e-mail laid out the conditions under which accredited photographers would be allowed to take and use photos.

The conditions included a few unsurprising items, like banning flash photography during band performances and stating that bands would not pay the photographers for taking photos during the show.

But they went much, much farther, making several demands that litigation-wary lawyers are increasingly placing before photographers: banning photographers from certain areas of the event, banning photos of any illegal behavior (like drug use and nudity — as if participants themselves weren't going to post them on Facebook), claiming total ownership of the images made by professional media photographers (while simultaneously forcing the photographers to accept all liability if anyone objected to the photos' content), and demanding the right to destroy photographers' physical property (digital-camera memory cards) if festival organizers disliked what a photographer was doing.

This type of move is called a "rights grab" in the news business, and is becoming "standard operating procedure" for many organizers, according to Mark Loundy, a professional photographer who tracks the terms in photographers' contracts for the National Press Photographers Association (of which I am a member).

Loundy says that while the spread of rights grabs is "like a bad case of the flu," photographers are taking up opposition. "There seems to be a higher level of awareness that these things aren't in the interest of our profession," he says, though noting that many event organizers limit recourse by presenting rights-grab requirements at the time of the photo shoot, and ensuring that any person who could change the agreement is unreachable at that moment. (Some photographers, he says, leave without shooting; others sign "Mickey Mouse" or some other fake name, while most just sign their own names and carry on.)

And yet Loundy has "never heard of any of these entities ever trying to exercise their rights" under these agreements. So lawyers demand all sorts of rights and indemnification, but never use any of them. Still, it is rare for an event organizer to say "never mind" and get rid of any requirements or limits on photographers.

But that is exactly what happened in the Nateva case. Photographers objected, and when festival creator and organizer Frank Chandler got wind of the move by his PR firm, he acted swiftly. The following morning, he and the PR firm held an "emergency meeting," and that afternoon issued an apology letter from Chandler himself to all media and prospective photographers. That letter's tone was very different from the previous day's legalese-filled e-mail: "Unless you have spent some years as a member of the Cuban or North Korean press corps, I expect that you found these 'rules' nothing short of insulting," Chandler wrote.

Noting that just about everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times these days, he dismissed the idea that any accredited photographers would need to sign any sort of form, opened the festival and its entire grounds to media access, and specified that "You own all the pictures that you take and what you do with them is your business."

Good for Chandler for doing the right thing, and doing it decisively.