A young teenager makes his way to the Owens River near Benton Crossing in the Eastern Sierras.

When major media companies start working to limit the amount of money they pay to license photographs, it’s time to speak up. I’ve seen this trend coming for years now, as have many of my friends and colleagues. Getty pushed the ball off the mountain years ago with a scheme to take over the world with low price, high usage licenses in a financially stupid attempt to own the market for stock imagery. Now, as the ball has rolled into a massive landslide, they are in the same boat as the rest of us as their model is hardly sustainable. They helped drive the prices so low that now they can’t even make money off of them and must rely on other ventures to stay solvent.

But they had help as well. From where, you ask? From the legions of naive and, to put it in plain language, stupid photographers who thought they had an opportunity to “get published” by agreeing to let Getty and Corbis and others sell their images for next to nothing. Don’t even get me going about Flickr. Even worse, there is a large network of people out there, professionals included, who think giving their work to places like the NY Times Lens Blog is a good way to “brand” themselves, to use marketing lingo. Well, brand away, because the business of giving away images or licensing for insanely cheap prices will drive your now “branded” business straight into bankruptcy.

Folks, once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be next to impossible to stuff it back in. Once publications are used to garnering content for nothing or next to nothing, they will NOT go back to licensing at a standard and fair price. Yes, it’s the Walmartization of the photography business. Cheap, inexpensive and, usually, not very high quality.

As I’ve noted before, I simply won’t participate. Going back to  the first days of my freelancing in the early 90’s I chose not to give away my work, and I won’t start now, no matter who is asking. I’ve walked away from very good, respectful clients, like the Sporting News, for whom I shot many, many assignments years ago. Once the copyright grabbing contracts emerged, I politely tried to renegotiate, but to no avail. TSN at the time simply wanted to own my images because they saw the actual value of the images in the licensing arena. In other words, why let the photographer who created the images earn the licensing money when the company can demand copyright transfer and then earn the licensing revenue themeselves. Many other companies, including Gannett and the Washington Post Company initiated similar contracts that required the photographer to relinquish massive rights to the company in exchange for assignments. No thanks, I’ll pass.

Yesterday I received a request for a image from someone I did not know. It was a somewhat vague request yet stated clearly the budget for usage was $75. The usage was not spelled out. Respectfully, I asked for the basic information (size, placement, duration, languages, region, revisions etc, etc) so that I could provide a quote. When the response came this morning, it was from one of the largest and most respected publishing empires in the photographic world. Again, the tone was nice and respectful, yet the request included these terms:

“1.     Licensor grants [company name] the non-exclusive right to reproduce an Image in the Production and to distribute the Production of the Material or any portion of the Material in the Production on any  [company name] branded web site page, in a [company name] branded product or service, or a product or service under [company name] editorial control distributed through any digital platform with the following rights: perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, in any and all languages as part of the Production and any edition or version of the Production.”

Translate: For $75 I would grant this publishing empire the right to use my image on any of their websites, on any product, to advertise any service through any digital platform forever throughout the world. Now, why would ANYONE agree to such terms?

Many of these contracts that I’ve dealt with have come with notes lamenting the sour economy and insinuating, or clearly stating in some cases, that the economy has driven them to such low prices. That’s simply erroneous as this trend began well before the economy tanked. Did the prices paid go up during the bustling economy? No.

As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I politely decline to participate in destroying my own business. It should be noted here that there are enough publishers and companies (non profit and for profit) that offer fair prices for the licenses requested. In the past two weeks, Random House negotiated respectfully and fairly with me for two images to grace front and back book covers.  The last couple of days I’ve dealt with a designer who is exceptionally fair in dealing with licenses for a series of political advertising promos. That’s why it’s easy to decline the bad offers. I know there are fair offers out there.

Todd Bigelow Photography

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