Things To Consider When Licensing Educational Uses

Posted on 12/14/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

The use of images for educational purposes has always been about 20% of the total market for stock images. For some agencies and photographers, educational sales represent a much higher percentage of their gross revenue. However, as a result of technological developments and industry consolidation, it has become extremely difficult for creators to earn enough from licensing images for educational uses to enable them to continue to produce imagery for this purpose.

There are three critical questions that photographers need to ask as they try to determine what to charge for educational uses:

  1. How extensively will the image be used?
  2. How frequently is the image likely to be licensed?
  3. What percentage of images a photographer produces for this market is likely to ever be licensed for educational purposes?

Let’s address these in reverse order.

What percentage of images a photographer produces for this market is likely to ever be licensed for educational purposes?

While supply of the types of images used in educational publishing is growing rapidly, demand is relatively stable.

Of course, this is impossible to know, but that does not mean the issue should be ignored. There is a rapidly growing supply of the kind of images textbook publishers use. The demand for such images is relatively stable. Therefore, the odds of making a sale decline as customer choices increase. Producing a higher volume does not guarantee more sales.

In addition, there are indications that the need for printed books may decline. U.S. schools and classrooms around the world are installing electronic whiteboards and developing systems that will enable students to access much more of their educational information online and through mobile devices. It is uncertain how fast such a transition will occur, but the education business is undisputably moving in this direction. Some believe that as we move to electronic delivery of information, there will be greater demand for imagery. Others think this is unlikely, predicting greater demand for video, not stills.

Furthermore, much of the imagery that will satisfy the needs of educational publishers is now available at microstock prices. Some in the publishing industry have estimated that 30% of the images used in book projects today are microstock, and that the percentage is rising.

How frequently is the image likely to be licensed?

It used to be that licenses were for “up-to 40,000 copies” of a title with a specific ISBN number, and an additional fee would be paid for any other use. A second print run of 40,000 copies typically earned an further 75% of the original fee. Thus, once an image was licensed for an initial use, there was a good chance that it would be licensed multiple times over a period of years.

Now, much of that has changed. Publishers ask for rights to print 1 million or more copies of a title and are unwilling to pay much more than they used to pay for 40,000. To a great extent, reuse fees have disappeared.

How extensively will the image be used?

In addition to expanded print uses, publishers now also want rights to make unlimited electronic use for the next 10 to 15 years. One publisher defines the type of use as “in print and/or electronic formats, including tangible physical formats, audio/visual formats, network based formats, and password protected websites.” (Emphasis mine.)

“Tangible physical formats” probably means books. However, it could be interpreted that the images could be used in many books with titles other than the one specified in the license agreement. It could also mean educational posters. The term could also have other meanings that are not obvious at first glance.

A typical educational use contract allows the publisher to make unlimited electronic use of an image for a specified period, usually 10 to 15 years.

The electronic uses covered in this statement, and in most agreements from other publishers, allow the publisher to make unlimited electronic use of the image for the period specified (10 or 15 years). It seems to be implied that the image could only be used in an electronic delivery of the same title, but what if the publisher breaks chapters or small articles out of a title and make them available independently? It seems likely that the lawyers representing the company will argue that they can use the image in any electronic way they choose for the duration of the license.

Understanding the language

I recently asked one publisher to explain the meaning of the terms in their definition of image uses. The researcher I deal with was not authorized to give me an answer. Because I publish a newsletter, the request was passed on to the public relations department, which has so far refused to answer. What the publisher wants is for those who license rights to images to sign agreements that can be interpreted later by the publisher’s lawyers to mean anything they want them to mean.

The language of today’s publishing agreements can be interpreted in many ways. Image sellers might get their own attorneys to interpret a proposed agreement, but all that means is that when a publisher interprets the agreement in a different way, everyone will have to go to court where lawyers will fight it out.

Recently, lawyers for Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt tried to argue in court that the term “one-time rights for a 40,000 copy print run for 10 years” meant that they could print as many copies as they wanted as long as it was in the 10-year time frame. They argued they did not have to pay any attention to the 40,000-copy limitation. Fortunately, the judge threw that argument out, but the legal strategy demonstrates that lawyers will attempt to interpret any language in the way most beneficial to their clients, unless there is a specific, clear definition upfront.  

The industry needs better definitions of what contractual terms such as “tangible physical formats,” “audio/visual formats,” “network based formats,” and “password protected Web sites” mean and include.

The industry needs better definitions of what contractual terms such as “tangible physical formats,” “audio/visual formats,” “network based formats,” and “password protected Web sites” mean and include. Sellers need a better understanding of how electronic uses are expected to develop, and ideally an estimated time frame for when such changes will be fully implemented. Absent that, photographers and agencies that are heavily dependent on the educational publishing business ought to start thinking hard about how they can diversify into other lines of work. Young people thinking about trying to produce images that will be of interest to book publishers ought to think again.

Copyright © 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:  


  • Cathy Aron Posted Dec 15, 2010
    Jim - Good comments. PACA has recognized these challenges as well and in October ordained an Editorial Relations committee. The primary focus of the committee is to develop a win-win relationship between image providers and educational publishers. We hope to accomplish this by building alliances with other industry trade associations. We are working on developing template license agreements for educational uses that will be agreed on and supported by both the image licensing and educational publishing associations. The goal is to have common terms that will make licensing easier for both sides to avoid prolonged negotiation over language. Pricing, of course, is left to the individual supplier. We will keep you informed of our progress.

    Cathy Aron
    PACA Executive Director

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