Image Bank Returns Policy

Posted on 3/1/1996 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)


TIB Return Policy

March, 1996 - If there comes a time when you need to terminate your relationship with your stock
agency, Should You Expect All Your Images To Be Returned?

I believe most photographers would say YES. I believe most photographers think their
contracts guarantee that they will get their images back. I would like to explore here whether those are reasonable assumptions.

How Agency Business Works

First, photographers need to recognize that some images may be lost or damaged by
clients. All agencies make an attempt to recover lost images, or be compensated
for such loses, but none would claim that they have a 100% success in such endeavors.
Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that a few images will be missing when it comes
time to return them. There are at least five aspects of this problem that need to
be considered. They are: Agency Reach, Number of Images Handled by the Agency, File
Organized by Subject or Sequence Number, Dupes or Originals, and Editorial or Corporate

  • Agency Reach
    If you are dealing with a small agency that has one office out of which all client
    requests are serviced it may be reasonable to assume that they will find and return
    most of your images. When your agency starts dealing with subsidiary agencies around
    the world, managed by people who are not employees of the parent agency, tracking
    images is a more complex issue.

  • Number of Images Handled by the Agency
    When an agency is shipping huge numbers of images to subsidiary agencies for consideration
    it is often difficult to keep track of which specific images are where. This is
    particularly true if every image does not have a unique number. Even if the images do have unique numbers, if there is no log as to specifically where a given image
    number should be located in the file the image itself may be almost impossible to
    find. The problem for the agency is the cost of tracking every movement of each
    individual piece of film. It is very easy for an agency to spend much more in tracking
    images than they could ever recover from sales. Driving the agency bankrupt is in
    no ones best interest. Consequently, agencys make compromises. They develop the
    best tracking they can afford and hope it is good enough. There are almost as many tracking
    systems as there are agencies. Photographers need to understand their agency's system
    and the risks before they sign on.

  • Organized by Subject or Sequence Number
    Some agencies file by photographer and/or sequence number which makes it much easier
    to find images when it is time to return them. However, most file by subject which
    is the way clients request images. Subject files make research more efficient, but
    a given photographer's images may be sprinkled throughout the file and consequently
    are very hard to re-assemble.

  • Are dupes or originals being sent to overseas sub-agencies?
    Sending in-camera originals to overseas sub-agencies makes sense in terms of getting
    broad distribution for the least cost, but it may be very difficult to retrieve those

  • Is the focus of the agency Editorial or Corporate?
    Many major editorial stock agencies in Europe have massive duping operations.
    They take in subject matter on a broad cross section of stories, and put together
    packages of 50 to 100 dupe transparencies each week which they ship to hundreds of
    newspapers, magazines and subsidiary stock agencies around the world. Photographers are usually
    not informed that their images have been included in these packages. Agencies are
    compensated for these packages in several different ways.

    1. The publication may pay a flat weekly fee entitling them to unlimited use of all
      images in the package. Photographers get a proportionate share of the total package
      price irrespective of whether their image was ever published.

    2. In some cases, in addition to the base package price, the publication may pay
      an additional fee for each picture used based on space. In this case the photographer
      will get a royalty on the additional fee.

    3. Subsidiary stock agencies may pay a modest dupe fee and license rights in the
      normal manner. In this case, they share compensation with the parent agency and
      the photographers in more or less the traditional manner.

    There are a host of issues that this method of operation raises, but I want to focus
    on the return of images. Customers receiving these packages understand that They Do Not Need To Return The Images.

    The customer is allowed to file the images. If they used them after the initial period
    (a week or a month) the customer is usually required to pay an additional fee. If
    they don't want to file them they can throw them out. After all, making new dupes
    from the stored originals is cheaper than the postage to return the dupes.

    This marketing approach led to a dangerous customer mindset in the 70's and 80's.
    Many customers came to believe that all images they received were dupes, and therefore
    of no value. This attitude carried over into the corporate realm and often presented a major problem for corporate agencies that wanted their images handled carefully
    and returned. Corporate agencies that were trying to compete against the well established
    editorial agencies were reluctant to try to force clients to pay for loss or damage for fear they would lose a customer. As a result many European agencies had difficulty
    collecting for lost or damaged transparencies in the 70's & 80's.

    It is my understanding that there has been a change in attitude among most of the
    clients outside the U.S. and that they now understand the differences between the
    dupes sent to them in editorial packages and the dupes that are sent out as a result
    of a request from a stock agency catalog, or a request to research the general file.

    Nevertheless, many of the dupes and "similar original" images that went into European
    and Asian files, 5, 10 or 15 years ago may have been thrown out.

    Stradiotto And The Image Bank

    This abstract discussion takes on a sense of reality when you consider the situation
    that has developed between John Stradiotto and The Image Bank.

    In August, 1994 TIB determined that they no longer wanted to represent John, after
    having handled his work for almost ten years. Lilly Filipow sent him a letter on
    August 29, 1994 terminating his TIB contract and pointing out that, "Post termination
    matters such as the return of the original transparencies and royalties earned after
    termination will be handled with strict observance of the terms of the contract."

    John began to patiently wait for his images, but by July 19, 1995 (almost a year later)
    John had received only 147 of the 2250 images he had on file with TIB. He wrote
    a letter at that time to Lilly, but it went unanswered.

    However, more images were returned and by November 16, 1995 he had received a total
    of 494, or 22% of the images he had on file at TIB.

    As luck would have it John is making more now selling his images directly than he
    ever made from TIB. He figures that if he can do that well with only 22% of his
    images, maybe he could do even better if he had access to all of his work. It might
    even be possible that another agency could sell his work. At any rate, John believes he
    has a right to expect return of all
    of his property.

    The return clause in the contract John signed gives TIB a lot of leeway. It says:

    "If THE PHOTOGRAPHER requests in writing a return of all or part of his images upon
    termination of this Agreement, this shall be done in a reasonable period of time
    for re-assembly and re-delivery of such images. TIB will, of course, use its best
    efforts to see that THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S material is returned as soon as possible. TIB agrees
    that if for some special reason THE PHOTOGRAPHER requires a speedier retrieval,
    it will attempt to assign special clerical personnel to perform such retrieval; however, the expense of same, if any, will be borne by THE PHOTOGRAPHER."

    John now recognizes that one flaw in the language is that TIB gets to define
    "reasonable" and that it could be a very long time. This was not the way he interpreted
    this clause when he signed the agreement. At TIB's current rate it could take five
    or six years before he gets all his originals. TIB could argue that an even longer
    time is "reasonable." During that time, of course, John's ability to make money
    from his photographs is being restricted.

    In another clause in the contract TIB has no responsibility for lost images. They
    could easily declare all missing images lost, and according to the contract, probably
    have no further financial responsibility to Stradiotto.

    The option to "assign special clerical personnel" at John's expense is really a "Catch
    22." If John were to take that option and try to search every file cabinet in 65
    offices around the world (because the images are filed by subject not, image number)
    it could easily cost him much more than the images are worth.

    TIB's Response

    I contacted Lynn Martin at TIB on John's behalf to determine if there was some unexplained
    reason why such a small percentage of John's images had been returned and to see
    if anything could be done to expedite return.

    She responded that the number of images returned thus far was "reasonable" given the
    difficulty of searching through the millions of images in 65 offices around the world.

    She argued this is a risk photographers must accept if they want the worldwide distribution
    possible with a major stock agency. She said all TIB photographers understand this
    and have made a conscious decision that the benefits of being a TIB photographer outweigh the risks of losing some images.

    She also claimed that the TIB return policy is consistent with the practices of every
    other major stock agency with international distribution.

    Reactions of Major Stock Agencies

    I felt that Ms. Martin was being unfair to other major stock agencies and advised
    her that I would survey a few to determine if they agreed that what TIB had been
    able to accomplish in the return of John Stradiotto's work was the best that any
    photographer should expect from a major international stock agency.

    I contacted Tony Stone Images, FPG International, The Stock Market, WestLight, The
    Telegraph Picture Library (London), IFA- Bilderteam (Germany), Baveria (Germany)
    and Alan Carey, president of PACA.

    Richard Steedman, of TSM replied, "it has long been a standing policy of The Stock
    Market not to publicly comment on the procedures of other stock agencies."

    All the other agencies responded and most believed they could return at least 80%
    of a photographer's images in less than one year.

    Barbara Roberts of FPG pointed out that they have one full time staffer whose sole
    responsibility is retrieving images which belong to photographers who have left the
    agency. (Many agencies tend to make returning images to photographers the responsibility of the picture research staff when they have down time. Remember at most agencies
    they have to go through every plastic sheet in every file drawer looking for the
    photographer's name because there is no shortcut method of tracking individual frames.)

    Sarah Stone of TSI made the point that they keep the originals of catalog images,
    and any images selected for their duping program in a separate file. Only in rare
    cases, and only with heavy liability clauses to the clients, do these original images
    ever leave the office. Thus, these most salable images would be immediately available
    to the photographer in the event of termination.

    All the images TSI has in their U.S. offices are numbered and they can easily track
    what images are where. Sarah acknowledged that the tracking systems of some of their
    overseas subsidiaries are not as good and they might have more difficulty in getting images back from them.

    All the U.S. agencies agreed that there are problems in recovering images that have
    been distributed internationally.

    Alan Carey of PACA commented, "I would suggest to John Stradiotto that he could file
    a grievance with PACA if he feels he was not dealt with in a proper fashion by his
    agency. This is the proper outlet for photographers who feel they have been wronged
    by their agencies."

    Who Instituted Termination?

    TIB's failure to return images might be more understandable if John had been the
    one who terminated the agreement. Instead, it was TIB who wanted to get rid of John.
    TIB is not only saying they can not sell John's work; they are also, by not returning
    his work, restricting his ability to compete in the marketplace.

    I have heard rumors, not confirmed by TIB, that the contracts of many other photographers
    have been terminated in the last year. If any of these photographers are experiencing
    difficulty in getting their work returned I would like to hear from them.


    1. Never send any agency an image you can not afford to lose. When it is your intent
      to leave images to an agency assume they are gone forever. Then you will not be
      disappointed if they don't come back. Get dupes of one-of a kind images.

    2. In your contract require that on termination the agency send a letter of "notification
      of termination" to all subsidiary agencies who might have your images. This letter
      should ask the agency sub-agency to re-assemble your work as soon as possible and return it to the head office. Require also that your agency send you a copy of
      this letter. (Some sub-agencies claim that they have never been notified when photographers
      have left the primary agency.)

    3. Understand how your agency files and distributes images. Weigh the risks of losing
      the images against the potential rewards.

    4. Images that are not numbered will be much more difficult to track than those that
      are numbered, but just because an image has a number does not mean it will be easy
      to retrieve. Most agencies have no records that tell them which image numbers are
      filed in which subject categories. Consequently someone must search the entire file
      looking for your name on the mount.

    5. Know whether all originals are retained at the home office, or if some of them
      are sent to subsidiary offices?

    6. Recognize that getting a stronger clause in the contract is not necessarily the
      answer. Understand what the agency is really able to deliver based on their standard
      operating procedures. Don't fight for contract language you will never be able to
      afford to enforce.

  • Copyright © 1996 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 301-251-0720, 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:  


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