As well as this blog, I am active on Flickr, the well-known photo-hosting site. My Blogger and Flickr accounts were both set up in February 2009 - seven years ago - and although both got off to a slow start, in the last three years or so both have taken off in the viewings department. Of course, the blog wouldn't have become as well-viewed as it has without my writing a lot of posts for it! And the same is true of Flickr. You absolutely do need to upload a lot of photos to make any impact.
Well, I have popped nearly 13,900 shots on Flickr over the last seven years. And so far there have been 1,096,000 viewings. Mostly from the general public. Any member of the public can view them. But I retain full copyright, so if anyone wants to use a picture for their own purposes, they must ask me for a licence. That said, Flickr is intended for amateurs. It makes a convenient showcase, and could be seen as a shop window; but I am not a shopkeeper touting for business. I use Flickr to share my life and travels, without any expectation of a monetary return.
Nevertheless commercial firms do look. As do tourist boards and museums and historical societies. Occasionally one of these will get in touch. If I think they represent a public service that merits my support, I almost always grant a free licence to use whatever shot or shots they wish to use on their website, or in their local printed literature. I do however ask for a name-credit against my shot. And that's nearly always readily agreed. Even an amateur should have due credit. Only one body (a UK tourist board) has ever refused me a mention as the photographer. I thought that mean, because I was certainly not requesting any payment for the use of my picture! I wouldn't grant them a licence. (I hope they subsequently reconsidered their policy in this area!)
On just two occasions so far the proposed usage has had such a 'commercial' flavour that I have felt justified in asking for a licence fee. There was the publicity firm who saw my 2014 pictures of Poundbury in Dorset, and wanted to use some of them as background shots in a brochure intended to sell properties there. We got as far as agreeing a modest fee per picture, but nothing more came of it. Then, recently, an advertising firm specialising in travel-industry clients got in touch, wanting to use a shot of mine to illustrate a 2016 coach tour brochure, the client being the Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company. Again, this was purely a commercial matter, and so we negotiated a licence fee. This time the proposal got signed off, and I got my my fee! The cheque arrived in today's post. It was for £35, the sum I'd asked for. This was the picture.
It's the pyramid-shaped tomb of Mad Jack Fuller in Brightling churchyard. I went there on a gloriously sunny afternoon in May last year - see my post The face of failure on 22 May 2015, which says more about the tomb and the other follies Jack Fuller constructed in and around Brightling. You can visit them all, and in fact make a coach tour of it!
Anyway, this is the shot that I was paid £35 to make use of. It is the sort of shot anyone with a camera could have taken. But I saw the picture and took it, and I went to the small trouble of putting it up on Flickr, and I have consequently made £35 from it. Which demonstrates that it's always worth paying attention to composition, and definitely worth having a showcase on the Internet!
The cheque has been banked. And I will pop the money in my savings account. Really, it's a windfall so far as I'm concerned. It's not income. If there are more licence-requests during the next twelve months, I will deal with them as I always have done. Potential users must respect my copyright and ask me for a licence. That done, and the usage explained, in many cases they will get their licence for free, and only have to give me a name-credit.
Still, what view might HMRC take? Is my £35 taxable?
It might be. If a casual receipt can be attached to a regular business, or even to a one-off venture conducted on business lines, then tax might well arise on any profit made. Well, I am not in business, and this is strictly a casual receipt, but there's no denying that my name is out there in public as a photographer, and (perhaps crucially) I did request a fee. And I conducted the negotiations in a cool and businesslike way. These things, taken together, rather suggest that - subject to any expenses I might be able to claim - the £35 would attract income tax.
On the other hand, the photo itself was just one of many taken that sunny afternoon entirely for my own personal enjoyment. I certainly didn't take the picture thinking 'this is a business shot, there's a profit to be made here, and it's going to earn me money if I publish it on Flickr'. No such profit-motive was there.
It's perhaps fortunate that this £35 is only a small amount of money, amply covered by whatever expenses might legitimately be set against it. In other words, if HMRC enquired, we would end up agreeing to a net loss. Taxable then, but no tax in fact due. So I'm not going to waste their time by drawing it to their attention.