The Hollywood WGA/SAG-AFTRA Strike, Copyright and Photographers

The writer's strike of the Writer's Guild of America that started May 2, 2023 is ongoing. With the recent news that the Screen Actors Guild is joining them, it feels like a notable point in history. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA have not both been on strike simultaneously since 1960.

Writing and acting are different pursuits from photography and the creative work we do. But many demands for fair contracts for are the exact same things we as photographers should be concerned about.

Understanding the Value of Creators

At the heart of both the demands of writers and actors are the impact of AI on their work. And more fundamentally, compensation and the ability to preserve a sustainable earning ability.

With SAG-AFTRA now striking with WGA, one key point that's surfaced are studios' demand for the right to use an actor's likeness.

An actor's likeness is part of their value and earning potential. And when star power relies on the currency of image, it can mean everything for a production's box office returns.

With photographers, it is the work we create and the copyright that we own that is part of our concrete value. For this reason, it is critical that we do not give away our rights without the compensation that matches that value.

Left to Right: Todd Owyoung, Mike Corrado and Baron Wolman photographed speaking at PhotoPlus Expo in NYC on October 25, 2019. Photo credit Diane Berkenfeld.

A Story about the Importance of Copyright

My friend and hero Baron Wolman was Rolling Stone's first staff photographer. He shot from 1967 to 1970. In the founding years of the magazine, he made iconic images of rock royalty. Baron created the iconic images we associate with legends such as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling stones, the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Hendix, Johnny Cash and more. Even if you don't know his name, you certainly know his images.

The images from those short 3.5 years supported Baron for the rest of his life, particularly in his later years as the iconic nature of his images and the fame of his subjects were cemented in history.

When he agreed to shoot for Rolling Stone, Baron fought to keep his copyright. He went so far as to forego payment as an early employee so that he could retain ownership of his work, rather than work for hire and assign copyright to the magazine.

Baron Wolman was able to live off his images precisely because of his insistence to keep his copyright. Baron had the foresight and keen understanding that he was capturing history, and he knew the value of his work.

We all don't have the luck, talent and grace to create the iconic images that Baron Wolman did so easily throughout his career. But we do have the chance. And that's what so many of us are chasing.

One thing that is guaranteed: we as photographers will never have the opportunity to have the value of work recognized if we don't value ourselves, our copyright and our rights overall as creatives.

If photographers had the same unions in place as writers and actors do in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, we would be striking for the very same fundamental protections for our ability to practice our crafts as professionals.