72 Geographic On Disk
May 7, 1997
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ON DISC
This fall National Geographic plans to release a package of 30 CD-ROM discs that will
contain the complete editorial contents of every issue of the magazine since they
started publishing in 1888.
According to Bob Madden, head of National Geographic Interactive, there will be
approximately three and a half years of issues on each disc. The entire National
Geographic index will also be included on all discs. Thus, by placing any disc into a
computer the user will be able to look up a subject and determine which disc contains
Each magazine page is being individually scanned at approximately an 80K file size and
JPEGed. The page will appear exactly as it did in the magazine. Images will not be
scanned separately. While pages are scanned individually, they will normally appear as
spreads on the screen.
Madden says, "If you like pixels you'll love these images because you can see a lot of
pixels in them." The user will be able to print pages and a copyright notice will
appear on the bottom of each printed page. There is no plan to Digimarc the images to
aid in tracking unauthorize use.
It is not clear whether the license with the disc will allow school children to copy
images free of charge and use them in their projects. However, this strategy is
becoming a common practice with many educational publishers.
Angelo Grima, who is in charge of working out the arrangements for rights to these
images, said "No comment" when asked what type of arrangements would be made to
compensate photographers for their work.
Clearing copyright on this project may well be a nightmare. The copyright will have
expired on some of the older material. There may be some question as to who owns the
copyright (photographer or Geographic) for images produced before 1976. But, with the
1976 change in the copyright law, all freelance work produced after that time should
belong to the photographer unless there is a clear contract that stipulates otherwise.
Geographic clearly owns the staff produced material, but in the last couple of decades
an increasing amount of the work for the magazine has been done by freelancers. Two
years ago Geographic was down to two staff photographers.
Freelancers have had a variety of arrangements with each contract being different.
Some individuals did one or more stories on a straight project basis and owned all
secondary rights. Annual contracts where photographers were guaranteeing them a
certain number of days work varied somewhat. In some, but certainly not all of these
annual contracts, some secondary use may have been granted.
Many photographers also wrote for the magazine and received compensation as writers.
Each writer, like the photographers, may have a different agreements.
We know of one photographer/writer who has a specific written agreement transferring
the copyright back to him.
The nearest precedent for such a use was The Face of LIFE disc published in late 1994.
It contained 1,800 LIFE covers from the years 1936 through 1972. It also contained
more than 2,200 other selected images, but nearly all of these were produced by staff
In their letter to photographers, LIFE said, "While as a legal matter we are not
obligated to make any additional payments to reproduce our covers, in the spirit of
this project we decided to make a payment to all non-staffers whose images graced
The payment LIFE offered was $30 for a full cover and lesser amounts if the picture
appeared smaller on the cover. Many photographers and some stock agencies complained
about the low fees and refused to cash the checks, but there is no indication that
anyone took any legal action.
The LIFE situation differed from Geographic in that they were using many fewer issues
than Geographic intends to reproduce. In the very few cases where they used pictures
from inside the magazine that were produced by freelancers, it is our understanding
that those freelancers were paid a much higher fee than the cover fee.
LIFE also used nothing that was produced after 1976 when the copyright law changed.
The current copyright law, and Geographic's heavy use of freelancers in the last 20
years or so, will make their situation much more complex and much more difficult to
Whatever course National Geographic chooses, it is likely to set a strong industry
precedent. It could help photographers, or severely limit their options in terms of
controlling re-use by other publishers in the future.
For photographers this is the perfect project to establish the precedent of a shared
royalty with a percentage of the gross sales of each disc set assigned to a "royalty
pot" and each rights holder getting a share of this pot based on his proportionate
share of the total images in the package.
Considering the number of images involved, the per- image payment is likely to be very
low, but photographers who have done a number of stories over the years may still see a
For example, lets say that there are 20,000 pictures that were produced by freelancers
entitled to royalties. If, as a result of sales, $100,000 goes into the pot to pay the
copyright holders, each holder would get $5 per picture.
If Geographic thinks such a system is too complex to administer there is an
organization The Authors Registry (TAR) that would be happy to handle the distribution
for Geographic and its photographers. TAR was founded about two years ago by a
consortium of writers trade associations and currently has about 50,000 writers as
Major publishers are using this service to make royalty payments to writers for
electronic re-use of material that originally appeared in their publications. The
important thing to recognize is that there are practical solutions to the problem, if
Geographic will only consider them.
Right of Refusal
Some photographers have argued that they must be given the right to refuse to
participate in this, or any other project, before it is released. While a precise
reading of the copyright law may support them, Geographic may not interpret the law in
the same way. If Geographic is challenged on this issue, it is quite possible that a
lengthy court battle will be necessary to resolve the differences.
I believe the most important thing that can come out of all this is for creators and
publishers to work together to find a reasonable way to compensate creators when their
material is distributed by electronic means, and to develop a model for future re-use
of images on-line and in other electronic media.
Photographers missed the opportunity with LIFE. National Geographic may be our last
If you have ever had pictures published in Geographic please send me a e-mail with your
mailing address so we can keep you informed on developments throughout the summer.