Geographic Takes More Rights On Assignment

Posted on 2/9/1999 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)




February 9, 1999

Photographers working for National Geographic are facing another cut in

their annual income. This one comes, not in the amount of the day rate,

but in the additional rights Geographic is appropriating for the single

initial fee.

According to the New York Times, Terrence B. Adamson, NGS Senior Vice

President, Law, Business and Governmental Affairs, justifies this by

saying that the trend among many media groups is to buy all rights with

one fee.

As best we can determine the basic day rate at National Geographic is about

$400. For an additional $35 per day, which the photographer has no choice

but to accept, Geographic gets a whole bundle of

secondary uses. This list has been greatly expanded

under the new guidlines presented to photographers at the annual

photographers meeting on January 14th and 15th.

These uses now include: NGS books (including picture books, trip planners,

guide books, travel guides, diving guides, field guides, etc.) maps,

atlases, globes, CD-ROM's, complete re-issue of NGM in digital format on

CD-ROM's or on-line, calendars, greeting cards, posters as well as

commercial merchandise like tee shirts, hats, and umbrellas, national ads,

promotional cards, brochures, catalogs, NGS web site, computer screen

savers, domestic and foreign NGS TV shows and videos and other magazines

like Traveler, World, and the new NGS magazine: Adventure, "kids stuff",

slide shows, games, painting kits, puzzles, art boxes, indexes, note cards,

prints, matted prints and any other NGS use that might be devised in the


A decade ago additional fees were paid for such uses with the fee

varying based on the use. NG has slowly been chipping away at that

practice. As the rights diminish, the day rate has stayed basically the

same over several years.

We understand that some stars are able to negotiate fees higher than the

$400 a day, but that seems to be rare. More common

are the photographers who are paid less than the normal day rates for

travel days, editing days and administrative days. A photographer who gets

a 30 day assignment from National Geographic Magazine puts in a lot more

than 30 days effort for the fee he or she receives.

Foreign Rights

One of the areas where there will be the biggest loss of income for those

photographers who shoot for National Geographic Magazine (yellow borders)

will be in resales to foreign publications of the articles they produce.

Currently NG has five foreign editions but they want to increase that

number to 11 in 1999.

There is a payment for re-use in these editions and it has been $125 per

full page picture used or 25% of the $500 page rate of the domestic

edition. This page rate has not changed in six years and is very low when

compared to other publications. Photographers believe that a rate of $900

per page would be closer to "market rates" based on the fees charged by

Time-Life Picture Collection, NGS Image Collection and those recommended in

FotoQuote. NG has proposed to maintain the $500 page rate and lower the

percentage for foreign editions to 20%, 15% and 10% depending on the

country and the size of the distribution.

This hurts the photographers in several ways. Not only are re-use fees

low, but in the past the only way many photographers could justify doing

NGM assignments for the low assignment rates offered was because he or she

had a chance to sell re-use rights to foreign publications. These re-use

sales could often bring in an additional $30,000 to $50,000 for a 20 page

story with 12 pages of pictures, which, when considering the time and

energy necessary to get 12 pages of pictures into the magazine, resulted in

a reasonable return on investment.

Now that NG is publishing their own magazines in all these foreign

countries the chance for photographers to make additional sales of the

prime story are basically eliminated. That would be fine if the

photographer were adequately compensated for the original U.S. use plus the

increased distribution, but of course that is not the case. Some

photographers have calculated that the foreign rights to a story with 12

pages of pictures would net them approximately $9,000 under the new NG

agreement instead of the $30,000 to $50,000 they could have received by

licensing uses of that story directly in other magazines as has been their

right in the past.

Shorter Assignments

Another problem that many photographers are facing is shorter assignments

and fewer assignment days per year from NG. This can be a mixed blessing.

Short assignments, with some flexibility in when they have to be shot, can

usually be performed without any negative effect on the photographer's

other business. In the old days when a photographer was away on an NG

assignment for several months he often found it very difficult to get new

work from previous clients when he returned. In the interim, his previous

clients had found more reliable photographers to handle their work.

On the other hand, the unpaid work of coming up with a workable story idea

and selling that idea to the story committee is often the same for a short

story as a long one. In addition there may be a lot more time spent in

editorial meetings and editing, if you are working on a series of short

stories rather than one long one.

In the end, photographers are trying to sustain their businesses on fewer

paid days a year and a reduced income from stock sales.

File Selects

Another NG policy that has been in place for a while, and further embitters

the photographers, is the policy that NG retains all rights to published

images -- and "file selects." Most NG photographers don't have a problem

with the published images, but the "file selects" is another issue. No

maximum number of file selects is specified so the magazine can easily lock

up every good frame from a given shoot. Kent Kobersteen, Director of

Photography, has said that the number will average around 100, but the

photographer has no way of making a judgement before or during the shoot,

as to how much of the production he or she will eventually be able to

market elsewhere.

This also tends to lock the photographers into working with the in-house

stock agency because the only chance they have of licensing rights to these

"file selects" to clients outside the NG family is through the NG in-house

stock agency.

In addition, the new policy forever forbids the photographers access to

their published originals. Photographers believe that because they share

copyright to these images, they should have the right to physically access

them for their own purposes. It is interesting how NG can deny the

photographers physical access to their property and then still argue for

tax purposes that the photographers are not employees.


Finally, there is the issue of re-use in books. Under the new policy the

only time a photographer might be paid an additional fee for use in one of

the 60+ books NG publishes each year is if over 90% of the images in the

book are the photographers. It is so unlikely that a photographer would

have this percentage of images in a single book that is hardly worth

discussing except that even then there is no guarantee that the

photographer will get additional compensation. At the 90% level Geographic

has agreed to negotiate the issue with the photographer.

The happiest photographers seem to be those working for the lesser

magazines -- Traveler, World, and presumably the new Adventure magazine --

rather than National Geographic Magazine. They can work on short narrowly

defined projects, NG keeps fewer of their images so they can make more off

the stock produced, and they have no illusions about NG being a significant

part of their income.

It used to be when assignments were longer that freelancers could basically

work full time for NG and make a living. There were gaps between

assignments, but the photographers got enough work in a year to sustain

themselves. Now, with shorter assignments, reduced re-sales, many are

questioning whether they can continue to accept assignments from National

Geographic - particularly the long magazine assignments. Many will

continue to accept an occasional assignment, but they are agressively

"re-inventing" themselves and looking to other outlets to make a living.

More than 50 photographers have signed a letter to John M. Fahey, Jr.,

President and CEO of National Geographic Society, offering a

counter proposal that would improve the photographers situation slightly.

Even if the photographers get everything they are asking, NG will still

be getting images on some of the most favorable terms in the industry.

What's Likely To Happen?

The same that happened about three years ago. The Geographic management

will sit on the issue for a couple months, and the photographers will

refuse to take new assignments until the rights issue is settled. Then

management will say, "Our original offer stands, take it or leave it," and

announce that photographers must either accept the assignments offered or

the assignments will be given to someone else.

After all in the photographers meeting on January 14th one photographer

clearly stated, "The contract you propose does not allow us to survive."

To that Terry Adamson responded, "You are wrong....,and if some of you

(meaning anyone in the assembled group) are not happy, we can do without


Three years ago, most photographers grumbled when the "take it or leave it"

ultimatum came, but they took the work. However, they also started to

agressively market themselves in other ways and to build up their

non-Geographic business. After the dust settles in this one expect to see

many more of the photographers who have been working for NG agressively

competiting for other work. They may still take an occasional National

Geographic job as they transition their business, but their goal will be to

move away from NG, not closer to them.

One photographer believes the problem is that National Geographic

management has a perception of their photographers as cavalier romantic

types who prefer traveling to exotic locations to getting paid. He says,

"the reality is that freelancing for this organization has no security, all

the travel plays hell with family relationships, and at the end of the day

we have no retirement benefits and little ability (especially with the new

contract) to benefit from the images we took when we were young and fit."

There is no question that photographers shooting for National Geographic

like doing editorial assignments. But they pay a heavy price for the

privilege -- and that price may finally be getting to be too great.

Things For Photographer To Think About

  • Are you taking the Traveler, World and book assignments with the hope

    of being "discovered" and eventually getting a NGM assignment? The

    question to consider is do you really want it. Will it help your career or

    hurt it.

  • Are you going to be upset when a shot you did for Traveler or World

    later appears in one of the 60 books Geographic produces each year, or in

    the yellow border magazine, and you get no additional compensation?

  • Compare the work expected on a NG assignment and the compensation

    received with that of any of the publications you work for. Are the rates

    NG is paying worth the trouble?

  • How many days do you have to work at $435 a day to cover your overhead

    and make a decent living?

  • How many paid days (where you get a day rate) did you work last year?

    Is that number going up or down?

  • Copyright © 1999 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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