iStockphoto Exclusivity Explained

Posted on 1/30/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Many photographers found the language of the new 15-page iStockphoto Exclusive Artist’s Supply Agreement difficult to comprehend. A big part of the confusion lies in the fact that an exclusive arrangement with iStock is photographer-exclusive for royalty-free content, unlike nearly all other exclusive arrangements in the industry, which are image-exclusive.

In an effort to clarify these terms, Selling Stock spoke to an iStock representative. The questions and answers are republished in full at the end of this article.

In brief: Exclusive iStock contributors are not allowed to make royalty-free images available through any other seller. In addition, if an image is ever submitted to iStock for consideration, the company mandates that this image can never be licensed as rights-managed—even if it was rejected by iStock and never marketed or licensed as royalty-free. The only option is to submit iStock-rejected images it to Getty Images’ Photographer’s Choice collection. This is a very serious limitation, considering iStock’s rejection rate, which is highest among top microstock agencies.

iStock points out that its exclusivity agreement can be cancelled with a 30-day notice, unlike similar agreements with other agencies. Existing Getty Images artists may also take advantage of iStock exclusivity. However, Getty Images’ contract photographers that do not have images with other agencies are a rarity, since Getty’s contracts are image-exclusive, not photographer-exclusive. Virtually all photographers represented by Getty also have images elsewhere, disqualifying them from benefiting from an iStock-exclusive contract, unless they are willing to withdraw all their royalty-free content from all other agencies.

Still, there are significant benefits of being represented by iStock on an exclusive basis. Non-exclusive photographers are penalized in several ways:
1. Non-exclusives receive 20% of sales, instead of 40% given to exclusive photographers.

2. The number of images non-exclusive contributors can submit weekly is severely limited compared to exclusive photographers.
3. The review and editing process between the time images are submitted and approved or rejected takes much longer for a non-exclusive photographer.
4. The search-return order is heavily weighted in favor of exclusive photographers.

There are a number of Getty photographers interested in supplying images to iStock. Yet given the available options, it seems highly unlikely any of them will do so on an exclusive basis. Instead, they are likely to submit images on a non-exclusive basis to all microstock brands, get more accepted by the other brands, and build up the other collections compared to iStock.

iStockphoto Q&A

Jim Pickerell: If an image is deemed unacceptable by iStock, and is not similar to ones iStock has accepted, does that mean that the photographer is not allowed to attempt to sell that image through any other source anywhere in the world?
iStockphoto: Yes, if they are exclusive with iStock.

JP: Is the photographer allowed to make images not accepted by iStock, and not similar to ones iStock accepted, available for sale through other organizations (not including Getty Images)?
iStock: No.

JP: Is the photographer allowed to make images unaccepted by iStock, and not similar to ones iStock accepted, available for sale through other organizations that license rights at RM or traditional RF prices?
iStock: No to both RM and RF, as the image was originally created and submitted as RF content.

JP: Is a photographer who signs an exclusive agreement with iStock allowed to continue to license images that were already being licensed prior to the signing of the new agreement as RM or traditional RF?
iStock: Yes to RM and no to RF. The photographer must terminate any other RF agreements before signing the iStock exclusive agreement.

JP: Is a photographer who signs an exclusive agreement with iStock allowed to continue to offer new images to the RM or traditional RF companies he/she previously worked with?
iStock: No, with the exception of Getty Images’ properties, including Getty Images, Photographers Choice and eventually Jupiterimages.

JP: Is the exclusive photographer required to show to iStock all the images he/she produces before offering them for consideration to anyone else? (In effect can the photographer do one shoot for iStock and another for an RM or traditional RF seller?)
iStock: As the artist is exclusive to iStock for RF, there will be no RF images submitted elsewhere. The artist can create new images, ones not submitted to iStock, for license elsewhere as RM.

Copyright © 2009 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:  


  • Lee Torrens Posted Jan 30, 2009
    Just to clarify an often overlooked point...

    Not all exclusive iStock contributors are paid 40%.

    Only once an exclusive contributor has sold 25,000 licenses ("downloads") are they paid 40%.

    Exclusive royalties are:
    25% until 2,500 sales
    30% until 10,000 sales
    35% until 25,000 sales

    Royalty rates are here:
    "Canister levels" are here:


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 31, 2009
    Hi Jim,

    Thank you for putting this so clearly. This is something I have been trying to share with the community for some time and people just don't believe it to be true. Limiting like we have never seen before in this business but I don't think the Micro players realize just what they are signing in the long run, just my opinion.
    The part I find peculiar from Getty's stand point is they are loading there collection with a small amount of exclusives and they are paying the exclusives more than than non-exclusives. This doesn't sound like smart business to me. If the photographers they were signing as exclusive were good enough to raise the bar at Istock I might start to see their point but I do not see any difference in the quality of their top shooters and their non-exclusives.
    Micro is not cutting edge photography and it's buyer base is not established around high end conceptual images so to say you have an exclusive image when there are so many that can produce this level of stock and place it on competitors sites makes me wonder what they are thinking.
    The other part I notice is they don't really add incentives for being exclusive it is more like they hold you back for being non-exclusive. There is a difference. I really have trouble trying to figure out what they see as their plan and how this will pay off in the long run. Can anyone add to help explain their thinking. It can't be just taking care of their stable of shooters and treating them better because they like them.

    Jonathan Ross

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