Licensing In The Digital Age

Posted on 4/6/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Prior to 1976 a commissioning client owned the copyright to images created by photographers. At that time there were stock images licensed based on use, but the vast majority of images that appeared in publications and advertising were created on assignment. The general rule preached by photography organizations at that time was “Never Shoot On Speculation.”

The 1976 copyright law changed all that and gave photographers ownership of the images they created and the right to control how those images were used. The significance of this shift in ownership cannot be overstated. With the change in the law image makers could license narrow and specific uses of their work. Often the same image could be licensed multiple times for different non-competitive uses.

At the ASMP Strictly Business conferences in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago Susan Carr discussed how the licensing business has changed and what photographers need to do to adapt.

    “Many photographers do not practice proper licensing relying on assumptions, handshakes and verbal OKs,” she said.  “And, unfortunately, others use copyright as a weapon, charging exorbitant re-licensing fees or suing commissioning clients whenever possible. The result, some 33 years after the copyright law was changed, are more and more predatory contracts and Work Made For Hire demands coming at us from our commissioning clients. The business world is fast forcing photographers back into a model that looks very much like pre-1976. The promise of a continual income stream from our creations often seems distant and unobtainable.  

    “So, why bother?  

    “Licensing in the digital age has evolved. It is rare these days to license photographs, particularly images created through commissioned assignments, for a single use. The new norm is to bundle rights allowing the licensee to use the images over a broad spectrum of platforms. A bundled license, even an unlimited use license with no time limit, is still a license. That license grants to that one person or business the right to use the images for their own purposes. It does not extend to them the right to share or license the photographs to anyone else. As the creator and owner of the photographs, you control any further use or distribution of the images.

    “We must still price by taking into account the extent of the usage even if we no longer know the ‘exact’ parameters of that use. A mom and pop diner advertising on their web site and in the local paper should pay far less than a global corporation with multiple online and print outlets. Both distribute the work on the Internet making the use technically ‘worldwide’, but common sense should prevail. The goal should be fair compensation for the rights granted.  

    “This shift to bundled licensing is critical for photographers offering us a way to preserve the copyrights to our work while simultaneously meeting the needs of our clients. We must, as producers of creative content, make the licensing process efficient and understandable. If we do not do this, the proliferation of Work Made For Hire agreements and rights grabbing contracts from our clients and publishers will dominate, if not take over, the creative market.”

Copyright © 2011 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:  


Be the first to comment below.

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff