546 SCANLON ON ROYALTY FREE
March 22, 2003
Editors Note: In preparing my recent article on Royalty Free I sent several
questions to companies that produce and market RF imagery. The response from Henry Scanlon
at Comstock was insightful and much more than I had asked for, or expected. I'm not always
in 100% agreement with Henry, but he is always entertaining and provides important
perspectives that are always worth considering. The following is his letter.
Jim: Thanks for sending along your questions (I think). My initial impulse was to respond
by sending you my recipe for bundt cake, but, in the interest of avoiding actual work, I
found myself jotting some notes. One thing led to another (none involving attending to the
mountain of items piling up on my desk while I considered your distractive queries) and the
result of all this you will find here, for what it's worth, representing, I'm sure, a far
larger dose of my righteous ramblings than you expected or, certainly, desired...
As is often the case when I hear from you, I found myself pondering Immanuel Kant. (I'm
sure you find that to be true with almost everyone you deal with.) To wit: Of necessity,
flowing from your role as a disseminator of information to the photographer community at
large, you must take a sort of "categorical imperative" approach, as in: that which one
does must be assessed as being either good or bad based upon a projection of what the world
would look like if ALL did it.
For my part, having missed the memo on Immanuel Kant (and, anyway, I always assumed he was
a utility infielder for the Chicago Cubs) I am relieved of that imperative (thankfully) by
virtue of having the luxury to focus on the concerns not of the photographer community in
general and in total, but, rather a more limited group consisting of the photographers we
have a relationship with. That is not to say that I have NO concern for the general
photography community; but it is to say that I am primarily mindful of the welfare and
well-being of those photographers who work with us, and feel no need to promote the notion
that the architecture of those relationships should be -- or even could be --
That said, here are some thoughts on the RF model generally, as it relates to
I have never made it a secret that I believe the fundamental RF model, as it was originally
conceived and as we are now all living with, to be unnecessarily imprecise, overly generous
to clients in ways that were not needed to make the model work, and bad news for
I still believe those things despite the fact that at last count we had over 50,000
customers in the United States who purchase RF images from us on a regular or semi-regular
basis. The model is still imprecise, overly generous and bad news for many photographers.
And that news is going to get worse, still, for a lot of photographers, while at the same
time presenting a significant opportunity for some. To a degree, my belief on this flows
from a rather contrarian view I hold that the effects of the RF model on the marketplace
have not yet been fully felt, that there is more to come. The RM shooters you allude to who
have stood foursquare "against" RF will find their RM base further eroded not only by RF
and other emerging RF-like models, but also by a trend towards assignment photography as
more and more clients realize that when they purchase an RM image they are not getting the
protection against competing use they perceive as a significant benefit to that model,
unless, of course, they pay extra for it -- a lot extra -- at which point moving to an
assignment mode will start looking increasingly preferable.
And there are photographers out there -- a lot of them, and good ones -- who have realized
all the above some time ago and are hustling assignment work, and not just with end-user
clients: with photo agencies as well, and they are being hired to shoot RF assignments for
agencies, being paid top dollar to do so, with little or no residual interest in the
resulting photographs. This may be perceived as a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a
In short, when it comes to RM, the squeeze is on, from both ends.
And since you state that the article you are contemplating is directed at those
photographers who are riding the RM horse exclusively, and smart enough to detect the
increasing peril of the trail they are on as well as the questionable footing of their
horse, let's talk about that RM corral: what it is and how it got to its current state.
(This is a worthwhile exercise since it is an understanding of that that leads to the door
that opens the opportunity I refer to above, and which I will continue referring to until
I'm good and ready to tell you what it is...)
We inhabit an industry that, when compared to other areas of the arts, holds some bizarre
notions and allows itself to be driven by some truly cockamamie principles.
Hence, let's talk about music. I like a good "cover band" as well as anyone else. You know:
You go into some lowdown, sleazy bar (not that I ever do) and there's this great band
playing, and you're sitting there saying, "Hey, these guys play this even better than ABBA
did the original! Viva Fernando!"
But if that cover band goes to Atlantic Records and tries to get them to record the song
for them and issue it into the marketplace, they'll be told, "I don't think so, duh, you've
just knocked off an ABBA song is all..." In fact, you'll recall when Vanilla Ice "sampled"
a couple of bars from a Bowie/Queen song and got creamed for doing so? He was told, in
effect, "You don't get to steal stuff from other artists and issue it as your own". This
resulted in a variety of bad things for Vanilla Ice, including his ignominious
disappearance from a music industry that shunned him in response to his obvious disregard
for the creative integrity of his peers. All this despite his (I'm sure we can all agree)
In other words, the music industry (as well as every other area of the arts except
photography) takes the position that, sure, you can go ahead and be a great cover band, and
we wish you luck at all those weddings, bar mitzvah's and sleazy bars. But don't forget to
pay royalties to the artists whose work you are using and don't think that you can go out
and make your own record of it and have it issued in the marketplace.
In the early 90's, our industry arrived at a crossroads on this issue and, for reasons I
won't go into here, decided, as an industry (I'm talking about photographers themselves)
that they were going to take a different road, that it was going to be okay for one
"artist" to look to another artist's work, copy it, "make a record" of it, take it to
another "label", and have it issued into the marketplace. This was done with the
encouragement and enthusiasm of the "labels" -- the photo agencies.
Thus, our industry, at that time almost exclusively RM, became "the triumph of the cover
band". (Not surprising, since it was the "cover bands" who were making the decisions...)
And, by the way, a lot of these "cover bands" were really GOOD cover bands -- but cover
The result? The process of producing RM became one of determining what everybody else was
doing and doing the exact same thing, to the point where the entire industry became a hall
of mirrors where people who had copied other people were being copied by people who then
copied them. Absent that, and the acquiescence by the PHOTOGRAPHER community to what was
ultimately the disintegration of photographer-to-photographer copyright integrity, royalty
free could never have happened. In fact, having arrived at that crossroads and taken the
"cover band" road -- that road led directly and inevitably to royalty free, yes, that very
same model bemoaned by the very RM shooters who made it possible.
So, where the heck is this opportunity I keep talking about?
Okay, stay with me:
There are two critical elements to a photographerœs financial success: The pictures and the
Let me put that another way:
It's about the pictures, stupid. Anyone who wants to have a career as a photographer has to
engineer a situation where the marketplace assigns value to what they do (true, by the way,
of anyone in any market), and the place to start is with the photography itself.
And guess what? It's not as if the people at agencies who have been propelling the
creation of increasingly top-level images for the RF market have been sitting around
waiting for these RM shooters to see the light. To the contrary: In my opinion the best new
imagery has been emerging from scrappy RF agencies around the world driven by smart,
dedicated people who have been working with and nurturing a relatively small group of
photographers whom they intend to stick with. They're gonna dance with the ones that brung
The fact is that producing pictures for the royalty free market is really, really fun and
quite different from producing pictures for the "traditional" RM market. The royalty free
reservoir is comprised of some of the crappiest images I've ever seen in my life, and some
of the most innovative, creative, sublimely evocative images anywhere, bar none.
Make no mistake: RF production is different from RM, in part because of the financial
dynamic which, on the one hand, lowers (dramatically) the price-point from traditional RM
but, on the other, brings that price point within reach for a different, more experimental,
free-wheeling application of the images by customers who don't have to reserve the use of
photos for the higher end, higher budget, client-conservative projects. That means that
there is a voracious appetite for real photography, real creative experimentation, real
chances being taken, and thatœs what RF customers look for.
In short, they look for real photographers, not technicians skilled at the BUSINESS of
producing me-too imitations (sometimes quite beautiful and powerful ones) of that which has
Frankly, it's cool. And, like I say, a ton of fun to be involved in producing.
But it also requires real photography, not "cover bands". You're not going to make it in RF
by looking around at what's out there, deciding that you, too, can get some genX-ers with
spiky hair, cross-process the film and make a mint.
So, in my view, it's not a question of whether RM shooters should "get their minds right"
and start shooting for RF too, or instead. It's a question of whether they have the
ability to do so. They might feel as if they're slumming, but, if they are, they're
slumming in a neighborhood where they better be a real photo-grapher (that hypen is there
on purpose) if they want to survive.
But therein does, indeed, lie the opportunity for the real photographers out there. And
they ARE out there: Not many, but a few, and they have been buried under and drowned out
by the cover band avalanche for years. This is their chance to emerge, and emerge they
will. It's this group, the real photographers, the people with an enormous passion for
finding their visual voice and giving expression to it that I care about and that I have
always cared about, whether we at Comstock have a relationship with them or not. In fact,
these are the ONLY "shooters" I care about.
Having been knocking around this industry for a couple of decades, I've seen people,
agencies and photographers come and go, ascend and descend, descend and ascend, business
models come, go, get changed (remember when Tony Stone broke all the "rules" and announced
"no service charges", infuriating everybody else in the industry including me?),
institutions become entrenched and pronounced as being unassailable as having "the answer",
all in an Ozymandian cycle.
The one constant has been the joy -- and the power -- of the great, new picture and the
absolute determination of the photographer who takes them to find a venue for them, a way
to give their images a chance, and the fact that, somehow, there have always been people
willing and able to help them do that -- for a price. And that's where all these "business
approach" concerns enter the equation, because, yes, at the end of the day, you've got to
have access to the "channel".
And I'll talk about that, but first, let's be clear: As your good buddy Immanuel would put
it, we've moved now from the "categorical imperative" to the "hypothetical imperative".
Meaning: we're into an "if - then" world. And the "if" -- the BIG "if" -- is IF the
individual is a real photographer, with all the craziness and febrile drive and passion
that almost always accompanies that, and IF they do indeed have the ability to produce
imagery that is fresh and powerful and evocative and wonderful, THEN they should -- and can
-- effectuate the process of gaining access to "the channel".
But it starts with -- and is utterly, completely dependant upon -- the ability to take the
pictures. Real pictures; real photography. For those photographers who have been hidden in
the shadows of the cover bands, our industry today represents one of the biggest
opportunities they will ever see. Now is your time; now is your chance.
But, yes, it's also true, absolutely, that if a photographer doesn't have a channel into
the marketplace there is no "business" to sustain the creative enterprise. These days, when
you're talking "channel" you're talking website. And if you're talking website, you're
talking Internet, and if you're talking Internet you're talking democracy and equal access,
no matter what anybody tries to tell you to the contrary. If you believe the statistics on
web traffic available at Alexa.com (and, granted, there's some question as to their
reliability) as far as I can tell, our Comstock website is the third most visited stock
agency website on the planet. Since numbers one and two outspend us on marketing by a
number that I have precisely calculated to be a gazillion-to-one, I'm pretty satisfied with
that position, at least for now. Yes, that's a "channel". But ours, as well as the two
ahead of us, are not the only "channels". There are fine channels in existence and growing
and finding their way. There are new channels emerging every day, as well as new business
models, amended business models, changed business models, weird business models, all kinds
of photography-related BUSINESS stuff. And all of that is made possible by the Internet,
but none of it matters without the pictures.
Because it's about the photography, stupid.
The way to get the effective channels interested -- the ONLY way -- is with the
photography. After that -- and not before that -- you get the opportunity to make a deal,
hopefully a good one and a fair one. And the likelihood that it will be either of those
things or both of those things flows from... the photography.
Now, I fully recognize that none of the above is likely to warm the heart cockles of the
photographic community at large. I totally realize that a far more felicitous and much more
likely to be well-received message would be akin to "the water's fine; jump right in"
coupled with a lot of anecdotal stories of the vast fortunes photographers are making in
But I'll leave those stories to others. I have always taken the position that the
photographers we are attracted to are the ones who prefer to interface with the world as it
actually is, rather than as they might like it to be or as agencies with an agenda would
like to convince them it is. For those real photographers who are ready, eager -- and able
-- to make a meaningful creative contribution the water IS fine, and getting better all the
My advice to "RM shooters" contemplating a foray into RF? If you are looking to make your
living doing drive-by "cover" photography, I have bad news: that party is SO over... But if
you are the real deal, there's huge opportunity out here. Those real photographers out
there -- those few, those merry few -- can not only survive, they can prosper and they can
do so having more fun than theyœve ever had in their professional lives
Don't look outward to the "business model" issues (yet; you can do that later...) look
inward to your own creative core, and make it a very hard, fearless look. Do you have real
photographic ability and creativity? Or are you a "cover band" technologist who has been
faking it? The latter I have no advice for: you've made your bed. But the former are the
ones I care about, the ones I have always cared about. There is a place for you in this
industry, and a good one. Find your visual voice and work hard at nurturing it. Take
chances. And then find a channel. They will respond positively. Because of the pictures.
You'll be on your way.
I swear to you: It's about the pictures.