RAW Files - Must You Give Everything Away?

Originally published on October 24, 2017 in Rangefinder Magazine

Let’s say you are a professional wedding photographer. You’re hired to take pictures of a wedding - it’s beautiful and goes off without a hitch - and afterwards, you spend hours and hours editing your photographs to make them look perfect. You send the client a link to the digital gallery for his approval and heave a sigh of relief. All of the images in the gallery are watermarked, but you’ll send him the final, unmarked pictures once he approves.

The next day, however, the client emails you. He’s delighted with the pictures but says that he wants to be able to tweak a few of them himself, and asks you for the RAW files - the unedited photo files. What’s worse, he says that he’ll pay you after he gets them. Doubly worse, the contract that you gave him and he signed says nothing about RAW files, just that you will deliver “the pictures taken” at the wedding.

What will you do? You never give any clients the RAW files before you edit them, because they don’t look as clean as the finished product. But this client seems set on them and won’t pay until he gets what he wants.

The first question, of course, is whether or not you can withhold the final, unmarked images until he pays. The answer is probably. It depends on the contract you have, but in general you are free to withhold your final product until you get paid.

Beyond that, what if the client claims that the RAW files are the final product, and count as “the pictures taken” as covered by your contract? There are a few avenues you could try. First, your contract probably includes a clause stating that you will edit the images before final delivery (and if your contract doesn’t include this, then you should add it). You can point to this clause to support the idea that the RAW files are not finished product, but rather part of your artistic process. You do not share the RAW files, you might say, for the same reason a painter might not share her sketches.

Second, you can point out that even if the contract obliges you to hand over the RAW files, you nevertheless own their copyrights. This means that your client cannot legally “tweak” them as he said he wished to - he cannot edit or alter these files without the copyright holder’s permission. And if your contract states that the files were created as a work-for-hire and that the client owns the copyrights, well… then you have bigger problems, which you should address immediately by hiring an attorney to rewrite your future contracts.

Of course, it’s all well and good to find reasonable arguments to avoid your clients’ unreasonable demands, but it’s even better to prevent these demands before they arise. A good contract between photographer and client should state, at a minimum, that 1) the photographer owns the copyrights in all images produced, 2) that only the pictures edited and chosen by the photographer are considered final product, and 3) that no final product will be delivered until the full balance is paid. If you haven’t updated your contract in a while, now may be the time to speak to an attorney and bring your contract up to snuff.