Costco Markets Corbis Imagery as Prints, Posters

Posted on 12/1/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

With the introduction of The Costco Art & Image Gallery, Corbis and Costco will sell individual prints and posters as retail products. The images offered are a select group of some 20,000 professional pieces of fine art, photography and illustration from the Corbis collection of more than 6 million images. 

Traditionally, photo-related retail items—such as greeting cards, posters, calendars, décor prints and other similar merchandise—have sold through a middleman that manufactured a volume of an item and agreed to pay an upfront licensing fee for the right to produce and sell a certain volume of the product that featured an image. The Corbis arrangement with Costco eliminates this middleman, and the creator receives an individual payment every time a unit is sold.

As print-on-demand technology has improved, there is much more demand for unique and custom products that fulfill each customer’s specific needs and interests. Costco, through its 577 membership-club warehouses worldwide, offers a service that enables members to buy posters, prints and other photo merchandise using their own photography. With the introduction of The Costco Art & Image Gallery, the retailer has expanded its offering to allow customers to also choose from professionally produced images supplied by Corbis. 

Initially, there has been a lot of negative reaction from photographers, because it is anticipated that the fee for each individual use of an image will be very small. Corbis declines to indicate how much each photographer will receive for an individual use of his image, because the “terms of the Corbis agreement with Costco are confidential for competitive reasons.” When a photographer receives a royalty statement, it will detail whether an image was used for a print or a poster and the size of the use. Since the photographer will know how much Costco charged the customer for this product, a simple calculation will determine the percentage of the gross sale price allocated to the image producer.

Photographers should also recognize how much they are currently earning, per unit sold, for print or poster uses. While prices vary somewhat depending on the image, the Corbis online pricing template puts a five-year license to print 10,000 posters at $1,365—which makes the picture on each poster worth 14 cents at best (or $0.1365, to be exact). The photographer receiving a 40% royalty would get $0.0546, or a little more than a nickel, for each poster sold. According to Dan Perlet, Corbis director of communications, “The per-unit licensed royalty will be much more advantageous to the image creator than the current licensing structure.”

Getting paid for each unit sold is probably a fairer system than the current lump-sum method. It may also result in a greater variety of imagery being used for posters and wall art. It might even result in photographers getting paid for all the uses of their images, since there is great suspicion among photographers that when customers license rights to 500 or 5,000 items, they often end up printing more without ever telling the photographer. 

But with customers having greater choice, the volume of sales for any single image may never reach the levels a few have achieved in the past. It stands to reason that, if customers have a greater variety of imagery, they may be less likely to purchase as many copies of the few that are marketed heavily in the best-selling category. We’ve seen this happen in the music business. Many artists who were unable to get a contract with a major record company are now earning through iTunes. Meanwhile, a lot of the mid-level artists who had been represented by record companies for a few years prior are finding that they make fewer sales today than they used to, because customers have more choices.

The same is happening with books. Borders and Barnes & Noble handle about 3,000 titles in their stores. If your book was not carried by these stores, not many copies would be sold—or so it was before you could buy books at Amazon. Now, the online retailer sells more copies of independent titles that those represented by Borders and Barnes & Noble combined. Customers may not be reading more books, but they are reading books on a much greater variety of topics.

As more and more options become easily available to photo buyers, many customers will make different choices than before. Henry Ford once said: “The customer can have his automobile any color he wants, as long as it’s black.”

Most people do not like change. Most photographers would like to see things stay the way they have always been, because they know how to make money and beat their competition with the old systems. But we are not going to stop change. We are not going to eliminate print-on-demand technologies. Previously, it was not practical or cost-effective to go on press with a short-run poster. Now, through Costco—and many other sources—the cost of printing a few posters makes sense. 

How will that change customer demand? Will different types of images now be used on posters? How will customers—both business and personal users—find the images they want to decorate their walls?

While we are talking about direct-to-consumer sales, another service to think about is Encyclopaedia Britannica’s recently launched Universal Education Image Library. Much less of the future demand for imagery will be from major publishers and consolidators, and much more directly from individual consumers.

Copyright © 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:  


  • David Sanger Posted Dec 2, 2010
    Jim, a point you didn't mention, that has concerned many photographers, is that Costco is specifically inviting members to resell the Corbis prints.

    The Costco magazine says:

    "The beauty of it is that Costco members can use these top images for all kinds of decorating projects and even for resale.""

    "Possible uses include....countless opportunities for creative businesses to order finished products for resale."

    Though resale is specifically allowed by the First Sale Doctrine, photographers may still be alarmed at such low cost competition with their own fine art print sales.

    Also it is not clear if any such resold prints woudl have any artist attribution.

  • Jim Pickerell Posted Dec 2, 2010
    In their “Frequently Asked Questions” about the merchandise agreement Corbis says, “Once a member has purchased a merchandise item such as a poster or print from the Costco Photo Center, it can be re-sold in their store just like other wholesale merchandise. This is the same as other merchandising arrangements, whereby a poster, greeting card or calendar manufacturer would license a Corbis image for use in its product. The only difference is that in the case of a manufacturer, the Corbis contributor receives an upfront payment for the volume print run, while with the Costco arrangement, contributors receive an individual payment for every unit sold through Costco. Corbis has provided Costco with a very limited product license. The images are not licensed to Costco members by Costco. The Costco member is only purchasing a piece of merchandise. (emphasis mine) They do not receive a license for the image.”<br/><br/>In addition Corbis goes on to point out, “If Costco members have purchased merchandise from the Costco Photo Center, they may advertise the item(s) on their website. They may not advertise images for which they have no inventory; they may not make further reproductions of the purchased prints and posters; and they may not use the digital images from the Art & Image Gallery on their website without permission from Corbis Images. If they are creating a print-on-demand storefront on their website, they must obtain a release from Corbis Images for print-on-demand.”<br/><br/>It seems to me that prints or posters, either initially sold by Costco or resold by a member, will be unlikely to have the artists attribution attached to them. This is similar to the way most Fine Art and Poster uses are licensed today by stock agencies. More and more, in all aspects of the photography business, artists will have to decide whether they can earn more by licensing limited rights to their work for high dollars or by making their work available at much lower prices for a much broader base of customers to see, review and purchase. Advancements in technology have made it impossible to control and limit use in the same ways as were possible in the past. Those who want to continue to hold very tight control of their work may need to withdraw it from stock agencies and market in very limited ways.

  • Gildo nicolo Spadoni Posted Dec 2, 2010
    Oh great ...I'll get more $3 checks.

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