502 IMAGE RETURN NIGHTMARE
September 7, 2002
Image return has become a major issue for many photographers. The basic problem has been with
the industry for a long time, but several factors have come together in the last couple of
years to dramatically raise the level of concern.
- Many agencies have made dramatic changes to their marketing strategies. This has had
a major impact, not only on how they will handle future submission, but on what will happen to
the images currently in the files. In an effort to reduce operating costs some have focused on
cutting file research or eliminating it completely. This has occurred despite the fact that
these agencies still retain millions of images in their files.
In many cases little effort is being made to fill the requests of specialist users and
educational publishers who need images that have not been scanned, but which still remain in
the files under the control of the agencies.
- Customers want to use digital search techniques and also have the images delivered
digitally. Given the costs of digitizing and keywording images, many agencies will only
digitize the images they deem to be of highest demand. A large percentage of images in most
agency files will never be digitized.
- As a result of the acquisition and consolidation of agencies problems have developed in
integrating files. In the past most agencies filed images in subject categories. There was no
standardized method for doing this so each company developed its own unique system. Often the
numbering and system organization of different companies is very incompatible.
Trying to integrate files from two different agencies has frequently required much re-editing
and total re-numbering of the acquired file to make it compatible with the parent file. In the
best case there may be a long period before the images from an acquired company are fully
marketed through the site of the company doing the acquiring. In the worst case many images,
even former good sellers, are never added to the acquiring company's portal.
Based on recent experiences, if your company is acquired, expect problems.
- Faced with the declining demand for file research and the huge costs of preparing images
for digital marketing an increasing number of smaller agencies are going out of business.
In times past, a small number of agencies around the world would go out of business each
year. When this happened photographers often have had difficultly getting their images back,
but the number of photographers affected was usually not large enough to cause a great stir.
Now, a large number of photographers are seeing sales fall dramatically and having trouble
getting their images returned. This prevents them from moving the images to other marketing
channels that might generate income for them.
- Sorting images for return is a significant cost for a company, but it does not generate
a single dollar in revenue. Most agencies recognize that they have a responsibility to return
images, but it is the last thing they want to spend limited resources on. When revenue is
going down it is hard to justify using any of it to pay for sorting images just so they can be
returned to the photographers. In the case where a company is going out of business, there is
usually no money to pay for sorting.
All these factors have left agencies with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of images
that they no longer want to represent and which should be returned to the photographers.
The Sorting Process
Getting images into a file is a costly process, but getting them out is equally costly. In the
past most agencies organized their analog files by subject category to make it easy to find
all the images on a particular subject when a customer comes looking for that subject. This
makes great sense from a research and marketing point of view. It is a disaster when it comes
time to find all the images in the file belonging to a particular photographer.
When images are organized by subject there is no simple way to find all the images belonging
to a single photographer. If the photographer's work is not narrowly focused, it may be
necessary to systematically look through all the images in the file just to find ALL the
images of one photographer. In the past when a photographer terminated his contract most
agencies would ask their researchers to "watch" for images belonging to photographers as they
went through their normal research process, and pull them as they found them. This was an
inefficient process since the researcher's primary task was fulfilling a new request, not
looking for images belonging to photographers who had left the agency. On the other hand when
the research process is eliminated no one is left to look for these images, even as a
The most cost efficient way to sort images that have been designated for return is to first
sort everything by photographer and then begin returning all the images at once.
Unfortunately, if a large number of images are involved this takes a long time. If there is an
attempt to look through all the images for those belonging to one or a few photographers the
entire process is stretched out because each image has to be handled many times. The fewer
images a photographer has in a large file, the harder it is to find all the images belonging
to that photographer. Often it is like looking for a needle in haystack.
While this sorting is taking place much of the photographer's work is no longer available to
customers, even though it may still be in the agency's file. There are millions of images in
the files of many agencies that now fall into this category. It may take years after an image
has been pulled out of active marketing before it can be returned. For many photographers this
means they are no longer earning revenue from images customers would purchase if they could
Is The Problem Only With Bankrupt Companies?
It is easy to see why this image sorting may be put off by a company that is losing money and
near bankruptcy, but it has also been a problem for companies that are otherwise considered
In the case of Chuck Mason vs. The Image Bank it was discovered that before Getty took over
TIB had for many years made a very minimal efforts to sort images that needed to be returned
to its photographers. In the early 90's TIB terminated its relationships with a number of
photographers, but more than five years later many of them had only received a small
percentage of the total number of images they had on file with TIB despite that fact that it
was TIB who initiated the terminations. TIB was unwilling to spend
money on an activity that didn't generate income and returning slides was such an activity.
To Getty's credit, once they recognized that this problem existed, they put a staff of
approximately 30 people to work on the return project. With this number of people they were
able to return a substantial number of images in a relatively short period of time. Getty says
they returned about 10 million images in 2001 and a large percentage of them belonged to TIB
However, there are indications that Getty may not be working quite as aggressively to return
the images of some of the other brands they have acquired, notably many of the VCG brands.
From recent statements by Getty officials there are indications that the return rate has
slowed in 2002 despite the fact that there are still millions of images to be returned.
Returning Pictor Images
To give a concrete example of some of the problems that can arise in getting images returned,
let me explain a little of what has happened with the U.S. operation of Pictor. This company
was a medium sized agency in the U.S. and one of the larger agencies in the United Kingdom.
Pictor Inc. filed for bankruptcy in May of 2001 and from that moment on the photographers
images were tied up in a company that was doing no marketing and whose sales were steadily
dropping. In addition many photographers had not been paid royalties for the sales made of
their images for more than one year. Nevertheless, according to U.S. bankruptcy law
photographers could not get their images returned until the bankruptcy was resolved, if their
contracts were still in force at the time the bankruptcy was filed. This confused many
photographers who had language in their contracts that said those contracts were terminated
and the images should be returned in the event that the company ever filed for bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy lawyers tell us that such language is not enforceable.
Anticipating a reorganization, Pictor did a major edit of the file in 2000 and placed in
storage about half the roughly one million images in the file at that time. These images were
no longer available for marketing, but many were of a quality and subject matter that they
could have generated income for the photographers if other agencies had been able to handle
them during the past two years.
It was Pictor's intent all along to eventually return these images to the photographers, but
for most of this period the sorting moved in a very haphazard way due to lack the funds.
Pictor assigned one person, who also had a number of other duties, to begin this sorting. By
May of 2002 some of the sorting had been completed, but much remained to be done. At that
point Stock Connection had negotiated a preliminary agreement to take over management of the
Pictor operation in the U.S. It was given temporary control of approximately 400,000 images
that were no longer part of the primary file. These images had been stored in Washington DC.
SC hired, at its own expense, extra summer help with the goal of completing the sort so these
images could be returned to the photographers as soon as the bankruptcy was settled. This
would leave SC free to focus on marketing the main file once it was moved from New York to
Unfortunately, the agreement in principle that Stock Connection had to take over the file fell
through due to the unexpected liquidation of Pictor's London office in June. Nevertheless, SC
has continued the sorting of these images and the job is 95% complete. SC intends to return
the images to more than 1100 photographers provided each photographer individually agrees to
pay the cost of shipping and handling of their work.
SC has found thousands of images that belong to several hundred photographers for which Pictor
has no current address information. It appears that many of these photographers terminated
their relationship with Pictor, or one of the predecessor companies it acquired, but never got
all their images returned. For example, I (Jim Pickerell) terminated my relationship with
Uniphoto in 1989. At that time over 90% of my images were returned, but some of the remaining
images are among those we have just sorted and have only been found because we systematically
broke up this large segment of the file.
Pictor acquired several small U.S. agencies in the mid-90's such as Uniphoto, DPI, Stock
South, F-Stock, Global Photo and New Image. It also appears that many of the images from these
acquired companies were never fully integrated into the Pictor file.
There are still approximately 500,000 images that are in the active files in New York. Because
the company is now in Chapter 7 liquidation these images could end up in a landfill. Someone
may be willing to store these images for a while so photographers could come and sort through
them, but it is not clear that will happen. As a result of the liquidation in London it
appears there is not enough value left in the file to make it worthwhile for any existing
stock agency to take on the responsibility of sorting the material.
Based on the work Stock Connection has done we estimate that it would take one very focused
individual at least a year to sort the images currently in New York and get them ready for
return. This job could be done faster if more people were assigned full time to the task, but,
it's boring work making it very difficult to find people who will stay focused.
In most cases the photographer is identified by a specific number located on the images and
this actually makes sorting faster than if the only identifying information was the
photographers name. Sorting those images where only a name is available is particularly
difficult because the names are often written illegibly and not in a consistent position on
What To Do?
There is no simple solution to this problem. Non-return of images may simply fall into that
class of things that are a "cost of doing business" for the photographer. But photographers
should be aware of the future difficulties they are likely to face when they enter into any
agency relationship. There seems to be no good way to force agencies to return images in a
timely manner. Usually the photographer doesn't discover that there is a problem in getting
images returned until it is time to leave the agency.
The good news is that when digital search and retrieval are the principle method for finding
images, as is becomming more and more the case, the film backup can be stored by photographer
or sequence number. Then if retrieval becomes necessary it should be much easier to find the
images belonging to a specific photographer. Nevertheless, it is wise for the photographer to
have a good understanding of how the agency's storage system works, and what is involved in
Photographers are advised to:
Continually press the point with their agency that the agency should break up their
files and return the images promptly if they no longer intend to provide file research for
their customers. Photographers stand a much better chance of getting their images back when
the agency is healthy than if they wait until the company is facing bankruptcy.
Place the same or similar images with several different portals in non-exclusive
relationships in order to spread your risk.
Recognize that they may lose some images.
Be proactive when they get a hint that their agency is having problems and do what they
can to get physical control of their images.
Try to work with agencies that scan and return the originals and only hold digital
files. In this way photographer can maintain control of the originals.
Try to retain copies of raw scans and keywords at his office.
This can enable him to quickly place images into other marketing channels and not have to
duplicate costs. Factor the costs of scanning and keywording into your costs of preparing
images for market. Some agencies will absorb those costs and recover them by taking a larger
percentage of sales. Others will want you to pay the costs.
Keep similars or dupes whenever possible.
Try to get contracts that allow for quick termination and the positioning of similar
images on other portals prior to the return of all your work. This allows the photographer to
ramp up an alternative sales operation and hopefully maintain a flow of income if one sales
channel is unproductive.
Review contracts at their normal anniversary date. Don't allow them to automatically
roll over without a review.