Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How to License Your Photography

The (Big) Sale That Flew Away

A feeling of great excitement struck me, late last night. I had been chatting with a friend and came into my study to find a book to show her, and glanced at my emails as I passed the computer (go on, try not doing that - looking at emails every five minutes is an addiction many of us have but might find hard to acknowledge).

Sitting there, on the screen, was something I hadn't seen before - but which I knew a lot about - as it is close to a legendary event in the online circles of one of the photography agencies I use (Alamy). It was an email from their sales department, which read:

Hi Stephen, I hope you are well. One of our clients is interested in an image of yours (Alamy ref: AA4K00). The client would like to have a look at the copy of the property release. Could you please get back to us ASAP with a copy of the release as our client is working towards a very tight deadline? I look forward to hearing from you.

Such an email is very sought after because most clients will buy an image directly from the agent's website, without asking for property or model release forms. If the sales department is contacted, then it can often imply (but not always) that the image is being used for commercial use (advertising purposes), rather than for editorial use (publishing in newspapers, magazines and books).

And what, generally is the difference between commercial and editorial use? Money. Often lots of money. Don't ask me why, but commercial photography always pays more than editorial - whether it's commissioned work or stock photography.

So, I was very excited to see that email. Then I panicked. Had I got the property release? While it's something that photographers should do routinely, how many of us really do carry pieces of paper around that we ask the owners of property to sign, to allow images of them to be used commercially? I'd be surprised if many photographers do that for people shots (in that case the paper is called a "model release" form) let alone houses, or gardens or - in my case - helicopters. But, no, there it was - much to my amazement - in my folder marked model releases (I am one of those photographers who rarely ask for "property releases", so a separate folder is unwarranted - but I may change my ways!) So, all I had to do was go to bed and dream of what I would buy with the bundles of hard cash coming my way from this undoubtedly lucrative sale.

The shot sold this morning, and the fee is showing in my online account on the agent's website. It made $300. Yes, not bad for one shot. But not what I was expecting for a commercial sale - especially one that had generated the legendary email from the sales team!

So, what went wrong? Well nothing, actually. The reason that the fee was lower than it definitely could have been, was to do with the way in which the photograph had been licensed. When I first submitted that image to the agent, I had to decide on the type of license it would be assigned - declaring the way in which the image was to be "sold".

Licensing of stock photography is a complex issue - and it's a decision that only the photographer can make. The two "basic" licenses are "Royalty Free" and "Rights Managed". In general terms, a "Rights Managed" license means that each specific and single use - what the image is used for, where it will be used and for how long - has to be specified each time and paid for accordingly. It often results in quite high fees (known as "royalties") that are determined by the way the photograph is used. This can result in big money for for commercial images or photographs plastered over two pages of a national newspaper, for example.

"Royalty Free" images, are precisely that. The copyright owner (the photographer) allows the image to be purchased as a one-off sale, with the understanding that the image can be used in anyway the purchaser decides, for as long as they want. The upside is that a single purchase can command a reasonably high fee, but the (serious) downside is that the price does not fluctuate, depending on the use - and no additional fee applies if the image is used for another purpose, time and time again.

So, what saw alongside my sale figure was that I had assigned the image as "royalty free" when I submitted it to the agent - and that can't be changed.

More on how to decide on license types in another post!


  1. This is a big problem with royalty free licensing, and I am glad to have been warned before submitting my images (reading the internet was useful, for once ;)

  2. Really interesting post Stephen. I'm just working through some stock stuff now and it was was a timely read.



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