Questions From China About VCG

Posted on 4/19/2019 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Photo World Magazine in China asked for my views on four issues related to the VCG copyright dispute. The following are my responses to the questions.  I’ve decided to share these comments with my readers. In addition, at the bottom of the story there links to some other stories on that provide additional information.

Question 1 - What do you think of the "CFP copyright dispute"?

Part of the problem in responding to this is that it is not totally clear to me how VCG got the “black hole” image and the contractual agreement they had with their contributors. I think the image was uploaded by an amateur photographer. Amateurs tend to believe that anything they can find, regardless of whether they created it or not, is free game. They upload the first thing they see in hopes that they will get paid for their service an initiative rather than some else.

Back in the 1960’s when there was a lot of demand for NASA image my stock agency asked me to pick up and send them NASA images (I live in Washington, DC). The agency would then make the images available to newspapers and magazines. When anything was used I would receive a royalty for my service. The publications were happy to pay the stock agency an image use fee for the service the agency was providing. The publications always credited NASA.

The publications knew that they could get the images for free if they made a request to the U.S. government, but at that time it took about 3 weeks from the time of a request for the government to deliver a color transparency. If the agency had a usable transparency in its file, it was well worth paying a fee rather than having to wait 3 weeks to publish the story. In addition they didn’t have to go through the hassle in order to get the image.

Question 2 - In terms of your rich professional experience, would you please talk about the relationship between the photographer and the photo gallery, the responsibilities and obligations the photo gallery should assume, and how the photographer maintains his rights and interests?

The problem is that the whole stock agency system hasn’t been able to keep up with technology. Now it is not professionals dealing with professionals, it is professionals (like VCG and many stock agencies) relying on amateurs who can’t be bothered with trying to understand that there are “rules,” or taking the time to comply with them even if they know they exist.

Prices for the use of photos have declined so dramatically that professional photographer (those trying to earn a portion of their living from the images they create) can no longer afford to be engaged in the business. They can’t sell enough to cover their costs. So, increasingly, the only people supplying new images are amateurs. For the most part they don’t care about their rights and interest.

To legally protect themselves, professional stock agencies write longer and longer, more complex contracts. This is true, not only in regards to photography, but virtually every activity in which humans are involved. People sign these contracts without ever reading them. If they take the time to read every contract for every transaction in which they are engaged, they would have no time to do anything else, but read contracts. And they would all have to be lawyers to understand them.

We also have to take into consideration that today there is less and less protection of copyright anywhere in the world. Part of that is due to Creative Commons licensing. Most people think that if a picture is under a CC license then they can do whatever they want with it, despite the fact that on some CC license there as certain limited restriction (like supplying credit).

Even when it comes to professional copyrighted images 85% of the ones found on the Internet are used without permission, credit or compensation not just be amateurs, but also by professional organizations. For the most part it is more costly and time consuming to pursue infringers than any recover is likely to be worth. Basically, the business of licensing and controlling use of images is dying.

This doesn’t mean we should forget about copyright. In the long run less quality work that is needed will be created if there is less protection for the creators, but no one seems to have figured out how to make the protection system work for creators. Everyone wants everything to be free.

Question 3. In China, CFP is the sole agent of Getty Images. Many years ago, Getty successfully acquired other photo agencies and expanded rapidly, but some failed, such as Sipa Press and Gamma Press. Do you know about mergers and acquisitions between these galleries?

The attached stories on “How The Value Of Stock Photos Had Declined” and how “Stock Photo Agencies: Outlived Their Usefulness” pretty much explains the rise and fall of Getty. Basically, Getty started out with a philosophy that, “If they could control the market they could set the price.” For a while that strategy was successful. But after the introduction of the Internet they were never able to control supply and thus the price.

They have actually done a little better on the editorial side of their business than the commercial side, but for the most part they paid more for each of their acquisitions than the imagery they acquired ever generated. Mostly, the purchases were intended to keep that imagery out of the hands of others.

Question 4. What do you think of CFP's acquisition of Corbis three years ago?

I’ve never really understood how Visual China Group benefitted from this acquisition. VCG gets to license those Corbis images in China, but I have no idea how much that increased their Chinese sales and revenue compared to what they were already earning licensing the Getty collection. I suspect, not that much, but I have no idea. My guess is that the images licensed from the Corbis collection simply replaced licenses they would have made from the Getty collection.

It did take Corbis out of the market as a competitor and reduced the competitive advantage Imagine China might have had so maybe that was worth it.

The big question was why VCG turned over all the international sales to Getty Images. My guess is that 95% of Corbis sales came from countries other than China. I assume, although it has never been confirmed, that Getty pays VCG a small percentage of sales generated by the Corbis images. I would love to know what that percentage is.

Certainly, Corbis sales had been declining before the sale. Former Corbis photographer report that since the acquisition their sales have been declining significantly. Many suspect that Getty simply added the images received from Corbis to the bottom of its regular search-return-order. If that is the case, it seems likely that very few Getty customers ever see the Corbis images and continue to make their decisions based on what they find among the Getty images at the top of the search-return-order.

Thus, I’m not sure how much the “percentage of revenue” going to VCG really represents.

Getty certainly benefitted. They wanted to acquire to Corbis, but would have probably have run into legal problems with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over anti-competitive monopoly practices if they tried to buy Corbis directly. In addition, they already had so much debt that they would have had great trouble in raising enough capital to make the purchase.

By having VCG make the purchase they got rid of a competitor. Getty got all the benefits of access to the Corbis images and customers. And it didn’t cost them a cent. VCG paid the cost of the purchase. Overall, it doesn’t seem that having free access to Corbis has benefitted Getty in terms of overall sales since their overall revenue appears to have been flat or declining over the last three years.

Links to additional Selling-Stock stories:

Copyright © 2019 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:  


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