519 RF RIGHTS STANDARDIZATION
December 6, 2002
What rights do you get when you purchase a Royalty Free images? Many buyers think they get
all rights to do whatever they choose with the images they buy, but if you dig through the
fine print in the licenses that isn't true.
Recently, a publisher of children's books decided he could save money in the future by using
RF instead of RM images. This publishers has 24 titles with about 15 images per title. He
proposed to completely re-edit all the titles and replace the RM images with RF. This, he
thought, would eliminate his having to pay additional fees based on circulation, or when he
sells the rights to publishers in other countries to re-publish his books.
It is clear enough that once he purchased an RF image he could use it for almost anything his
company wanted to produce. But what about the other publishers who would translate the
content into their language and might reformat it in order to produce a book that would sell
well in their territory. The question was whether the publisher was allowed to take this
second step for the basic one time fee?
In the early days of RF the publisher would have needed to purchase a resale license for
products such as books, mugs, teeshirts, etc. The cost of a resale license might have been in
the range of $250 per image. However, in 1998 PhotoDisc changed its license and eliminated
the need for a resale license. Most other publishers followed suit.
When the above publisher contacted Getty the sales person said that only the normal fee was
required for such a usage as long as the product remained the same. (It is unclear why it has
to be the same product because once someone purchases an RF image they can use it in multiple
ways so long as they are the end user.)
Corbis said that if the "end users" are different each "end user" would have to buy a new
license. Jerry Kennelly, CEO of Stockbyte says, "if the prime publisher is reselling the
content in a digital format (other than postscript files or a locked down PDF) it is a
On the other hand if the buyer of the RF images is the publisher Bertelsmann or AOL Time
Warner -- companies that buy up everyone -- can any of their "divisions" legally use the
(One thing to note here is that RF is really not that "hassle free" when you're a publisher
trying to figure out how to do the right thing. If the images you intend to use come from
several different RF companies and you need to carefully read each company's license - and
probably get legal interpretation - to determine what uses are allowed.)
The problem is that there is no recognized industry standard for what is, and is not,
permitted when a buyer purchases an RF image. As a result many buyers just go ahead and do
anything they want with the RF images they purchase.
Kennelly believes that RF producers should establish some universal standards that are
accepted by all the players in the industry, publish them widely on a web site called
RFlicensing.com and then join the Business Software Alliance (bsa.org) to pursue enforcement
of their licenses.
At the PACA International Conference he placed current worldwide RF revenue at about $300
million and estimated that the industry could be earning $500 million if customers were
paying for all the unauthorized uses they are making. That's 67% additional revenue -- with
no price increases.
Kennelly praised Henry Scanlon's new approach at Comstock where the buyer is required to
designate the end user in Comstock's Flat Fee pricing model. He believes that the end user
should be designated on every license, and would gladly adopt that policy at Stockbyte if
others in the industry would join him.
Among the concerns are designers who buy a disc for one customer's project and then hold onto
the disc and use the images for future projects for different customers. Also many customers
are placing discs on inhouse servers that can be accessed by many users. The normal license
fee is for a 10 "seat" access, but it is not uncommon for more than this number of users to
have access to and be using the images. In such cases the customer should be paying for an
extra seat license.
Another concern of some RF producers is how some of their images are being used to illustrate
sensitive subjects. For example a major international newspaper recently used an RF image to
illustrate a story on increased sexual activity among young people. The models were clearly
recognizable. The model release probably covers the producer -- in a legal sense -- but the
producer is having some "moral" misgivings because the models had no idea they were being
exploited in this way.
This is only one example of this type of use. RF images are being used everyday in a variety
of sensitive issue situations. To some extent the producers have only themselves to blame
because from the beginning RF has sold itself as providing "fully released images" which you
can "use for anything." Buyers who can't find someone who will sell them rights managed
images naturally gravitate to RF. Consequently, virtually all the people who deal with issues
that are politically or ethically sensitive to one group or another rely on RF images to
illustrate their issues.
Some in the RF industry believe this is a time bomb waiting to explode -- particularly if
some of the models happen to vacation in some of the more sexually liberal countries and see
how their images are being used. Or if some of the out-of-work lawyers recognize this as a
A lot of this problem could be eliminated if there was a universally accepted statement on a
site like RFlicensing.com that explained in clear, simple language that no uses are permitted
for sensitive issues unless the user has obtained a specific release for that use, and that
the user will be fully liable if such use is made without specific permission.
While these changes would likely benefit the industry, and probably even earn all the
producers more money, I am skeptical that producers will be able to agree on a universal set
of terms. There is too much temptation to try to retain a marketing advantage by offering
something slightly different.
Also, because Getty controls such a large portion of the RF market it really boils down to
what Getty decides to do. At any rate for those of us sitting on the sidelines it will be
interesting to watch.