Adapting To A Changing Photo Licensing World

Posted on 6/25/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

As a result of technological advancements, and the new image search techniques on the horizon, we are about to enter another paradigm shift in the way stock images are licensed.

Consider some changes that are occurring.

1 – Frequently major publishers find images they want to use that have no identification as to where they should go to license usage. They are pushing for systems that will make it easy to locate someone who can license rights to such images, or at least limit their legal liability if they go ahead and use the image anyway.
2 – The European Union is pushing for some type of a system that will enable potential image users to determine if an image is copyrighted and needs to be licensed, or if it is “orphaned” and available for free use.

3 – In the UK the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act has made it possible for new copyright regulations to be written that will create a Copyright Hub where users will be able to search for images that need to be licensed and easily make contact with someone who can license rights to their use.
4 – All these systems look toward providing some type of limited protection for users who have done a “diligent search,” and determined that an image is an “orphan,” or that it is free to use for other reasons.
5 – The CEPIC Image Registry (CIR) has demonstrated a pilot project that will enable users to go to one online location and instantly, using image fingerprinting technology, search across hundreds of image database from around the world to identify the owner and licensors of a specific image.
6 – The UK Copyright Hub will do basically the same thing as the CEPIC Image Registry and either connect directly to the CEPIC Image Registry, or connect directly to most of the databases listed on the CIR.
7 – Undoubtedly, a similar hub will be developed in the United States that will link to image databases around the world. So far there is no specific proposal.

8 – Today, most professionally produced images are available for licensing through a multitude of distributors around the world. The CIR, the Copyright Hub and other central search facilities of professionally produced images will make it possible for customers to easily compare prices and license use of images at the lowest possible price.

Some things to think about

As usage of these hubs becomes common, working with lots of distributors around the world may in some senses become a liability rather than an advantage. Customers will be able to easily identify the cheapest source and purchase the images they want to use at the lowest possible price.

On the other hand keyword searches for commonly used subject matter will not be as effective on a hub as on a smaller database with a limited number of returns. The hubs are expected to have over 150 million images in the near term (probably before public launch) and likely hundreds of millions of images in the not too distant future. Hubs will be great for finding information about a specific image when the customer has a copy of that image. They may not be of much use when the customer needs to do a keyword search. In most cases there will be such a huge number of returns that the customer will only have time to review a fraction of them. In such cases customers may prefer to go to smaller edited collections rather than look at the whole universe of images.

It is believed that none of the hubs will license images directly, but will instead direct customers to organizations that license images on behalf of individual creators.

For some creators who would like to make their images searchable through a hub it may be advisable to only make them available through a single database where the creator can control the licensing fee. The difficulty will be that distributors will want to make all the images they represent for keyword search available through the hub. They will not want to allow individual creators to opt out of hub searches, and still have the images available for keyword searches.
It is unclear whether individual creators that normally deal directly with customers will be able to have their image collections searched directly through a hub. It seems that the creator would first have to searchable image database with a text search engine. They would also need to have an image search engine that would contain “fingerprints” of every image in their collection and be able to compare the fingerprint delivered from the hub with the fingerprints of their images. Finally, they would have to conform with the communication protocol of the hub they are working with. Meeting all these requirements may be impractical for most individual contributors.

Some photographers are taking the position that they don’t want their images to be part of any of the databases connected to a hub because then, if someone were to use their image, they might not be able to pursue unauthorized users for infringement. The only people who will be able to license images found through a hub will be the database operator where the photographer placed his/her images, or distributors that work directly with that database operator. The hub will not license usages. If the image has not been licensed the copyright holder can purse legal action. On the other hand, the laws may be structured so that if an image cannot be found by a “diligent search” of a hub, then the user may have some limited protection in terms of liability. In this case the photographer’s work would be at greater risk if it could not be found on the hub than if it were available there.

One concern is that when a search request is sent out from the hub the database that responds first will be the one whose images are shown first. This will probably mean that all the images from the companies with the greatest bandwidth or the fastest internet hookup will always be shown first. This could put small distributors at an extreme disadvantage. Solutions will need to be devised that give smaller distributors a fairer chance to have their images seen.

While the United States requires registration of copyrighted works with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to pursue legal infringement action in federal court, there is no way to search those registrations for a specific image if all the user has is a digital copy of the image in question. Given the way registration information is stored it is virtually impossible to use image search technology to search the U.S. copyright database. Thus, the Copyright Office database is useless as a tool for locating the owner of an image prior to infringement. There is some indication that the U.S. laws might eventually be changed to make existence of an image in a database that could be searched through a hub sufficient evidence that it belongs to the copyright owner. However, this would require changes in the U.S copyright law. Given the current dysfunction of the U.S. Congress it seems unlikely that anything will happen in the near term. Protection in the U.S. from an image being declared an “orphan” will probably lag action in Europe by a significant amount of time.


Delaying or ignoring this new trend in image marketing is not a viable option. It will move forward whether individual creators like it or not. The only option is to figure out how to adapt to this new reality in a way that will allow the creator to continue to earn a living.

Copyright © 2013 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • John T Fowler Posted Jun 26, 2013
    Jim, I like this story, distressing as it is. However - HOW do we fighue out how to adapt?

    John Fowler

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff