Exclusive or Non-Exclusive Representation

Posted on 11/12/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Does exclusive representation make sense in today’s stock photography world, or is it better to place your images with multiple distributors? Here are a few things to consider.  


Obviously, if you only have to deliver your images to one distributor it is less work for you, but is that the best way to maximize income from your imagery?

Some of the largest distributors will only accept images if they are given exclusive rights to represent them. It you want to be represented by that distributor then exclusive is your only choice. This made some sense back when everything was Rights Managed (RM). There was an under supply of images compared to demand and a significant number of customers were worried that their competitors might decide to use the same image they were using. As a result they wanted exclusive rights for a period of time or in a particular industry to the images they purchased. Agents needed to be able to carefully track all uses in order to license such rights.

Now, the number of such sales seems to have declined. In a marketing environment where 98% to 99% of all images licensed are Royalty Free (RF) it has become much harder, if not impossible, to control usage of most stock images customers want to purchase. The benefits to the image creator of being exclusive have changed.

Agencies are the main beneficiaries of exclusivity. Not only can they tell their customers in their marketing pitch that, “We’ve got the best images for your needs,” they can also say, “You can’t find the images in our collection anywhere else.”

In theory, if agents or distributors have exclusive rights to license the images they represent, they can’t be undercut by someone else offering the same image, for less. In fact with the huge oversupply of images the danger is not that a customer will buy your image for less on another site. The danger is the customer will buy someone else’s image rather than yours. Today there is no holding the line on price. Everyone is competing against everyone else. They all try to under price their competition. Those who try to hold the line often lose sales. Companies with the most exclusive images are the biggest discounters.

With the rise in unauthorized uses, exclusives could be of value in tracking unauthorized uses. Finding uses is getting easier and easier. Knowing whether a use was licensed legitimately can be a nightmare if a single agent isn’t the only one licensing rights to its use. But, are agents actively pursuing unauthorized uses? Most aren’t because it is a very time consuming and costly process. Thus, in most cases this is not a good reason for being exclusive.

Probably the best reason for being exclusive is that in some cases you can get a higher royalty rate than non-exclusive contributors. This happens at a few microstock agencies, iStock being the most notable example. But image creators need to carefully weigh the  higher royalty-per-license from one agency against the possible increase in total licenses by having the same images represented by many different distributors. Recently Yuri Arcurs decided to go exclusive with iStock after having been non-exclusive with many agencies for several years. However, what works for Yuri may not work for anyone else, and the jury is still out on whether it will work for him. In the RM environment, it is very rare for exclusive contributors to receive a higher royalty than non-exclusives.

The images of exclusive contributors may also be licensed for higher fees than those of non-exclusives. Price is an important factor for many customers. Higher fees per use is not necessarily better if you license a lot fewer uses.  

Agencies will often show their higher priced images and images from their exclusive contributors high in the search-return-order. This may lead to more sales. But, if everyone is exclusive, everyone’s images can’t end up at the top of the search. Also, if buyers get the impression that a whole collection is “expensive” it could result in falling sales. In iStock’s case the number of images licensed in 2013 will be about half the number licensed three years ago. Rising prices certainly had a lot to do with this.  

It used to be that those who were exclusive would get more support and guidance from their agent. That kind of personal attention has disappeared and is no longer a factor.


The best reason for placing your images with many distributors may be to spread your risks. Industry leaders don’t always stay on top. In the last few years we’ve seen some dramatic shifts in the fortunes of various agencies. If your work is with several agencies you can constantly compare to see if one does a better job of selling your work than another.

If you are exclusive and sales start to go downhill you are stuck. It is hard to determine if the market for the type of images you produce has changed, or if it is due to an operational change within the agency that represents your work. If your work is with several agencies it is easier to spot trends and make adjustments.

No agency has a monopoly on all the customers. Customers search different collections for a variety of different reasons. If your images are in multiple locations there is a better chance they will be seen by more customers than if they are only available through one source – even the largest source.

Another major consideration as image collections get larger and larger is that there are a huge number of images in these collections that are never seen. Your image might be in five different collections. A customer might search all five but only finds your image in one because it is too far down in the search-return-order in the other four to get seen.

Every agency has a unique algorithm for how they order search returns. None of them will explain to you how those algorithms work. Most customers only look at the first 300 or so images in a search return before they change their search parameters or go to another site to do the same search. Obviously, it is important to do a good job of keywording each image. But, even with good keywords the number of images that might be delivered on a popular subject is huge. If your image is not one of the first 300 there is very little chance it will be viewed by the customer. At any given agency there may be hundreds of customers looking for the general subject of your image, but because it is not upfront they may never know it’s there.

It is impossible to predict where any image might appear in a given search because agencies are constantly tweaking their search algorithms. Most algorithms put a lot of weight on showing the newest images first, although they certainly mix best sellers into those early returns. Maybe you created a great image six months to a year or more ago. Since then other photographers have uploaded a lot of images of much lower quality. Chances are your image is buried in the collection, seldom, if ever, to be seen again – even though if the customer had a chance to see it she might very well purchase it over the others she is being offered.

In the RM and traditional RF market it is also important to recognize that most agencies sell through distributors. An important question (which often they won’t answer) is, “What percentage of your sales are made direct to customers rather than through distributors?” When the distributor is the one dealing with the customer there is an extra cut in the royalty. Say your agreement with your agent is that you receive “40% of what the agent receives.” The agent has an agreement with the distributor that the distributor keeps 50% of the gross sale before returning the remainder to your agent. Your percentage is calculated off of what your prime agent receives, not the gross sale so you get 20% of the gross fee charged the customer rather than the 40% you expected.

RF agreements often pay the photographer 20% and your agent (also known as the producing agent) may only get 20% of the gross license fee. In this case for a $100 sale you might only get $4.00. This is a problems regardless of whether the image is represented exclusively or non-exclusively.

This is not a problem in the microstock arena – at least yet – because all the companies sell directly to the end users and the creator’s royalty is based on what the customer actually paid.

There is no perfect answer on whether to seek exclusive or non-exclusive representation, but these are some of the things that need to be considered.

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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Nov 12, 2013
    I have always been Non-Exclusive and will continue to be that. No one agency can support my work the way I want and they all have different clients. While it is true that the AGENCY loves exclusive images, it is not best for the photographers no matter what they tell you.

    Plus, putting all your images (eggs) in one basket is risky & not good business.


  • Jaak Nilson Posted Nov 13, 2013
    Some examples. My images are exclusive at one aggregator agency. They has a problems with missing releases, keywording and so one. I have connected with 5 years contract and I can not sell same images simultaneously. This aggregator agency distirbuting for lot of final distributors. Including Corbis and Getty.

    Now I am sending my new material to Spanish Age Fotostock. I do keywording myself and I can control it.
    Images are non-exclusive, royalty split between me and Age Fotostock is 50/50. And finally Age Fotostock sending now my non- exclusive images to Corbis or Getty too. So these gigants accepting non-exclusive too, but it is almost impossible to get direct contract with Corbis and Getty today.

    So it is better to forget exclusivity. It may have a good for agencies not for photographers. If agency does not perform well then a contributor has connected for several years with aggregator agency and can not sell same images if s/he wants.


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