Image Licensing: A Case for the Unpopular Route

Image Licensing: A Case for the Unpopular Route

There are two basic models for licensing photography. One is suggested by most professional photography societies and organizations while the other is decried as an unfair and unsustainable model by the same groups. For the past six years I’ve licensed my images using the unpopular model. In this article, I’ll explain why.

Rights Managed (RM)

The first model, the model that most professional organizations recommend, is the rights managed model. Using this model, the photographer stipulates where the images can be used, who can use them, and the duration for which these images can be used. If the client would like additional usage out of the images, they need to negotiate for further rights.

For example, using the RM model, ABC Architects hires me to do a shoot paying me a photography fee of $2,000. This includes the rights to reproduce 20 images on their website for 1 year.

At the end of the year, ABC Architects would like to keep the images on their site and are required to pay an additional fee, call it $1,000 for another year.

After providing the images to ABC Architects, the building contractor sees the images and would like to use them on his website. In order to do so, the contractor pays me an additional $1,000 to reproduce the images on his website for a year.

I’ve turned a $2,000 shoot into a $4,000 shoot without doing any extra work. It is clear to see why this model is popular among photographers.

Royalty Free (RF)

In the second model, the photographer is hired to do a shoot and the client receives the images with no usage stipulations.

Applying the RF model to my example, ABC Architects hire me to do a shoot for $2,000. In return, they receive 20 images which they use indefinitely on their website. At some point, they decide that one of the images would make for a beautiful advertisement of their design work and use the image for a print run in a national magazine. Because they have unlimited rights to the images, they are not required to pay me any additional fees.

Ultimately, what I can make from this shoot is capped at $2,000. At face value, the RM model is clearly the superior model. In the short term, I agree. However, over the long term, there is more to consider.

Quick side note: royalty free tends to be associated with micro stock. Please note that the licensing models discussed here have nothing to do with the price charged for photography. A royalty free model does not need to be a cheap model.

My Approach

I started a travel photography business about two years prior to my architectural photography business. My clients in the travel photography industry are multinational businesses that can choose from an infinite pool of photographers.

When I was first offered a shoot by one of these businesses, the contract I was offered was a "work for hire" contract. This meant that they paid for my time and owned an unlimited license to the imagery that I would create. The day rate that I was offered was significantly more than I was earning as a school teacher and they offered regular work, so it seemed to be a generous contract. As they were taking a chance on a new photographer, if I had refused the terms, they would have simply moved on to another photographer.

I’ve spent six years working under this contract. In that time, I’ve been able to support my family living in one of the world’s most expensive cities while also having the opportunity to travel to 55 countries around the world. My clients have enabled me to live my dream as a full-time travel photographer. I am exceptionally grateful to them and firmly believe my decision not to worry about managing the image rights paid off.

Interior architecture

An interior from the first shoot I did under my architectural photography business. Although the glazing was never the focus of the shoot, it ended up featuring in many of the images, making the images useful to the glass supplier.

When I started an architectural photography business, I decided to use the same licensing approach. Upon completing my first job for a client, I told them that they had unlimited rights to the images. As they were used to the RM approach, they were both surprised and grateful. It directly led to repeated business. After working with the same client for two years, he told me that the reason he kept coming back to me was that I made the process so simple. Before I started working as their photographer, it had been a nightmare keeping track of all their images and associated rights. Their preference for unlimited rights is based on simplicity, not budget.

Referring to the original example, using a rights managed approach would have netted the photographer $4,000. Using the RF model, I was commissioned for another eight shoots over the next couple of years, netting a total of $18,000.

London residential architecture

The same architects that commissioned the first shoot continue to grow year on year and are now an important London architectural practice. They continue to send interesting commissions my way.

Taking Unlimited Rights Even Further

After I did my first shoot for the firm that is now a regular client, the suppliers of the glass loved the images and asked to purchase them. As I had already been paid for the shoot, I gave the images to the glass supplier and suggested that if they liked them, they should consider me for their next shoot. Since then, the glass company has become a regular client and they have commissioned a further seven shoots. In addition, because they’re a high-end company, they’re the go-to option for Britain’s top architectural firms. This relationship enabled me to meet more architects and to develop new business.

Thames Lido Design

This is from one of the commissions from the glass suppliers who I established a relationship with by giving them images from my first architectural shoot. Through this shoot, I established a relationship with the architects and also had the images appear in a number of architectural publicatiions

As a Photographer, I Need to Be Shooting

That $2,000 shoot has turned into a $32,000. This is because it resulted in 15 additional shoots.  

Additional shoots are the main reason I use the RF model. The RM model seeks to extract the maximum amount of money from a shoot with the net result being a higher fee earned per shoot. It also results in less shoots. If clients do use the rights managed photographer for repeat business, they tend to commission more carefully as it costs more. An RM approach is perfect for those who want to work less and earn more. For myself, if I could choose between making $100,000 per year doing 10 shoots or $100,000 doing 40 shoots, I’d rather choose the 40 shoots. I love photography, why would I want to work less?

Restaurant design photography

Architectural photography is a difficult passion to pursue without commissions. Using the RF model helps to encourage more commissions. This was commissioned by the glass suppliers previously mentioned.

People Win the Lottery

Every time this discussion comes up, someone will bring up the Windows XP background image example. The photographer received over $100,000 for the use of that image because he managed the rights of the image. Subsequent photographers received approximately $300 for their images because they offered unlimited rights. There is another example of a British automotive photographer who was able to net an additional £100,000 on top of his original shoot fee by managing the image rights.

These examples are like lottery winners. The chances of winning the lottery are next to none, but seeing the occasional winners still motivates people to play. The photographers who received $300 for their images may not stir up much excitement, but they could have thousands of images selling to multiple businesses resulting in a sustainable business. For most photographers, the six-figure payout will never happen.

A One-Sided Argument

Because the unlimited rights model is so derided among photographers, I’ve delivered a one-sided argument to defend it.

The main attraction for the RF model for me is more time spent making photographs. I strongly suspect that any business coach would suggest the RM approach because most business people operate from the assumption that people want to work less for the same money.

I know that there must be some significant arguments against RF, so for the sake of balance, please let me know what these are in the comments.

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66 Comments

Mihir Shah's picture

I don't know where to start, but let me say this, people like you dilute the value of the industry and commoditise it further. Your logic has a fallacy. according to you, the Rights Free model brings you more jobs and keeps you shooting, but you are actually diminishing the value of the product and getting repeat business because you are basically cheap and perhaps good quality. Your USP will always now be a great 'deal' photographer and not a great photographer (even thought you may be one).

I would have understood if your model was $2000 for rights managed pictures and $4500 for Rights Free version. This makes sense as they get better value for paying more and you are pricing that option separately. What you are currently doing is training your clients to demand Rights free image package as a standard value. Absolutely bollocks.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Firstly, how do you know my pricing model isn’t $4500? The example I gave was for illustrative purposes to show the difference between RF and RM.

Secondly, is your opinion based on working in the architectural sector? Although there are certainly major players with a full time media department, for most firms, imposing a rights managed system on them makes the process of procuring images complicated. I’ve worked with firms who would simply not bother with photography if they have to worry about rights. In that case, RF has no effect on the market because the market didn’t exist.

Finally, have you considered that I might be happy providing my clients with a fairly priced service and not too bothered about whether I’m known as great photographer?

“Firstly, how do you know my pricing model isn’t $4500? The example I gave was for illustrative purposes to show the difference between RF and RM.”

I don’t want to come across as nitpicking your article and comments because I do appreciate your thoughts on the subject, but I think there are some ambiguities that are making it hard to fully understand where you're coming from.

For starters, the statement above. I don't think the actual dollar amount is what's relevant here, it's whether there's a difference between what you would charge for RF usage vs. if you went back to using RM. In the article, both of your examples quote $2k, whereas I would expect RF to at least be a different (higher) amount than what you would charge for RM, even if it's the only option you actually offer. So I guess what I'm wondering is, when you decided to stop using RM, did you mark up your prices at all to account for RF? That's really the crux of the issue. The examples (using whatever dollar amount you want to quote) don't really address this. Just looking at the article, it seems to imply you would charge the same for both. But then you made this statement further down in the comments:

"Mmm, your comment has just made me realize that I've left out a crucial bit of information. My "RF" approach is based on charging for a full image buyout. Essentially that is what RF implies right?"

That would imply that you are actually charging extra for RF, which isn't really at odds with an RM approach at all since you're still placing some level of value on the type of usage.

The reason I think the distinction is important is because it would seemingly leave the door open for competitors to charge less than you up front for narrower usage, while still coming away with a fair market value for what they're offering. If customers decide they want to pay a little more for what probably translates to fewer headaches down the line for them, that's understandable and you're essentially offering a premium service. The question is whether that premium is reflected in $$ at any point, other than just "more jobs".

Also, from another comment below:

"Secondly, is your opinion based on working in the architectural sector?"

Out of curiosity, are there any scenarios where you would go back to using RM? Perhaps a different kind of shoot or a different industry where you think it would make sense to stick with that model? Basically, if you were to play devil's advocate to your own approach, what would that look like?

I think this is interesting because it's kind of at odds with the approach FStoppers actually promotes in the Monte Isom tutorial, which is heavily based on RM. I'm curious what they think about this, both in the context of your specific industry and as a whole.

Jonathan Reid's picture

To answer the first question, I went straight into an RF model without ever charging via an RM model. It's difficult to know whether I charge a premium for the service as there isn't an industry standard average, however, in speaking to my clients, they've informed me that my prices are 20-30% higher than what they were paying.

With regard to the second part of your question, yes, I would use RM for anything were the images retain value for a long period, for example, celebrity portraits. In architecture, the images have value mostly only to the architects and suppliers and only for a limited time period.

Twelve thumbs up. I think these details really give context to your article.

I've felt all along that RM must seem like a pain in the ass from the outside looking in, and I've really been trying to find a happy medium between making things as simple as possible for clients while also not leaving money on the table. I think this point of view has value even if many will disagree with it, but it's something worth considering even if just for a healthy debate.

One more question, again just to put your methodology in context... How would you handle a situation where you're approached by a company / entity regarding usage of an image that was already "paid for", but the entity isn't necessarily one that has opportunities for future work? Maybe something that's somehow more outside the lines of your window/glass example, where the entity isn't directly connected to some component of the architecture. Would you just let them use it? Do you have one single license fee for this type of request and it covers all usage? Or would you consider quoting different rates for different usage? An alternative to that last one: would you ask them what their intended use is prior to giving them a quote and then scale accordingly?

Thanks again for sharing your approach. I'm always of the mind that this is a topic that needs way more public discussion yet it's often kept internal.

Jonathan Reid's picture

So with RF, it means the client who hired who has unlimited rights to the images. I sometimes take it further by giving the rights away to a 3rd party. I do this on a case by case basis, it is certainly not a given. Here are some examples where I’ll give away the rights to a 3rd party:
- when a few parties club together to hire me, often the builder and the architect. This is quite a common practice in this world.
- when I can see that supplying the 3rd party will provide good will towards my client (like with the window company)
- as a marketing ploy to open a diaolgoue with a new potential client

Outside of those reasons, I would almost certainly charge a 3rd party licensing fees.

Gary Gray's picture

I would point out that Jonathan has the right as owner of his business to determine what is best for his business. He has no obligation whatsoever to adhere to expectations, wishes or anything else when it comes to the sentiments of other professionals. Claiming his model is a detriment to all photographers is nonsense. He runs a business. His methodology nor his viability as a photographer isn't up to anyone except himself and his customers. I've been listening to the gloom and doom predictions for 20 years of this or that being a detriment to the business. One thing I've found to be fact is that any photographer who works his ass off and takes decent photos can succeed in any corner of the market.

Personally, I use both models in my business. RF makes me more money.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Gary. I appreciate your comment coming from your wealth of experience. I suspect that other photographers with actual, viable experience in the market will have a similar opinion.

To be fair on Mihir, I did end my article by asking for points from the other side. Although he didn't offer anything that made me reconsider my position, I did ask for it.

Gary Gray's picture

RF isn't just stock photography. There are two types of photographers in this world. Those who spend more than they make and those who make more than they spend. Making a profit is the primary goal of any business. I found the overhead associated with rights management to be much higher. Contracts, lawyers, policing your work, all take time and money. I'm with you, I'd rather be taking photographs. I'm retired now. One thing I've learned is that any photographer who doesn't find the path to making a profit will eventually fail as a business owner. My stock photography has, is now and will continue to bring money into my bank account. I don't have to hire a lawyer to make it happen either.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Great point about the overhead in managing image rights. It's a headache I'd rather avoid.

Xander Cesari's picture

What if someone invents an awesome automated image editing program and slashes their prices because they don't have to spend any time editing, would you say "go back to doing it the old way, you're hurting the industry for the rest of us"? Or perhaps they do a lot more with much cheaper gear and thus have lower overhead?

It's a competitive business and people are always trying to find ways to offer a more compelling product than the next person.

Emmanuel Vivier's picture

It does already exist for hotel photo for example : https://www.meero.com/en/

Xander Cesari's picture

Yeah I think there's also PhotoLemur and a few others so that was actually my "real world" example, though I don't know how much professional photographers are relying on tools like this.

Actually, your commentary is less about the model than about the price. You can do cheap RM, thus devaluing the work in the photo industry. You can do well-priced RF. And in this case, Jonathan Reid seems to do quite ok financially speaking. So I do not think your point really holds.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks mate. I should have put a disclaimer that my example used was illustrative, based losely on a real story. I definitely don't bill in dollars.

Simon Patterson's picture

These "you're about to make the sky fall on all our heads" type comments are silly. A guy is telling us how he has made good money off photography for years, and you reckon he's somehow being detrimental to the photography industry.

First, he doesn't owe the wider photography industry anything. Second, his model evidently works well and, as shown in the article, it makes sense.

So your criticism is hollow.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Simon. I'm pleasantly surprised with how little negative comments there have been. I expected to be blasted!

Simon Patterson's picture

It's funny how comments sections work, isn't it. I think the fact you were accurate and clear helped - people seem to get more grouchy at poorly thought out articles. Which yours most certainly wasn't!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks mate, really appreciate the feedback!

Paulo Juarez's picture

Here's an objection to the objection :)

Suppose company A adopts a business strategy that differs from the traditional marketing sector. Their new business strategy works for them, earning them more clients and long-term sales. Suppose that now everyone in the traditional marketing sector complains that company A is ruining the industry by changing the expectations of the market. Surely this would strike most as more of a tantrum than an actual argument. Nor would the objection have more force if one insists that, in changing their business strategy, company A is actually selling itself short. Surely that is up to company A to decide.

What if one objects to company A's move by complaining that this 'devalues' the industry as a whole? This doesn't seem to have much force either, since it seems to assume that company A has the same expenses and resources as everyone else in the marketing sector. Surely company A's ability to conduct itself as a business, and to set up its own pricing structure, is contingent upon both its resources and its resourcefulness?

In the end, the reason why I think the above objection fails is simply because it is *part and parcel* of competitive markets to give rise to innovation, which could not happen if we all had some overarching 'duty' to give priority to the expectations and traditions of the market sector. Maybe we do, but only in a loose sense.

David J. Fulde's picture

I find this a super intereting article - the only thing I find surprising is that you gave the rights to the glass firm instead of selling them a seperate unconditional liscence

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks David. I guess this was unnecessarily generous of me. It was a strategic give away, similar to offering a strategic free shoot to certain clients. It was a marketing exercise which ended up paying off in this instance. I will also point out that it doesn't always pay off.

Bill Wells's picture

Here is my observation. You said; "For myself, if I could choose between making $100,000 per year doing 10 shoots or $100,000 doing 40 shoots, I’d rather choose the 40 shoots. I love photography, why would I want to work less?"

I'm just a simple guy, but it seems to me. If I was to make 100k in 10 shoots, then I would have time to do 30 more shoots of some other kind and make 300k more.

Again, I don't know me much of that thar math, but what little math I do know says if I add it all up, I would do 40 shoots (like you wanted) and make 400k to boot.

Shucks, I may not be smart enough to see the big picture and I'm sure I'm wrong somewhere.

Jonathan Reid's picture

In the example, I showed how I turned 1 shoot into 15 additional shoots by using the RF approach. In my experience, the simplicity of the model, the upfront honesty of the total cost and the marketing reach using the RF approach leads to many additional shoots.

As you point out, if you're in the position of being able to pull off 40 RM shoots, it makes sense to do so.

Bill Wells's picture

I didn't even mention RM shoots. I have an engineering background and own a pretty successful computer company. Mostly servers, workstations and networking for local businesses.

But if I had the option to make 100k doing 10 jobs or 40 jobs, I just can see a scenario where it would be good business decision to pick the 40.

If it was something that I loved (as you say) then I still have time to do an additional 30 jobs (photography related not necessarily same type work) and producing even more to my bottom line.

So using your example, your business would produce 25% of what my business produces for the same number of jobs and same amount of work. In effect, you are working for 25% of market.

Jonathan Reid's picture

You're missing a crucial point - in the article, I stated that the Royalty Free approach leads to more work (more shoots) than the RM approach. My figure of 10 shoot for $100 000 or 40 shoots for $100 000 was illustrative not an actual reality. The point is, an RM approach will net more income per shoot, but less shoots over time.

There is a further wrinkle as an architectural photographer. Suppose I took the 10 shoots for $100 000 giving me a bunch of free time to shoot whatever I want to for fun. In my case, this would be architecture, but architectural shoots are difficult pull off unless they're commissioned. It isn't like a landscape shoot where you can just arrive and start shooting. You need to be invited to photograph most properties.

Bill Wells's picture

You can't change what you said. That is not fair nor truthful. Look it does not matter to me if you prefer to shoot 10 or 100. I was just saying from a business perspective it might not be best practice.

What you said was, if there were 10 jobs paying 100k or 40 jobs paying 100k, I would pick the 40 jobs, because I like photography. You went too great effort to explain both as being equal and you would only pick the 40 so you could shoot more. That is fine, I applaud you. But if you say it, own it.

Let's say 2 people have a cleaning service. Company A cleans 40 houses for $1,000, while company B cleans 10 houses for $1,000. Company B then steam cleans 30 houses for $3,000.

Company A has a total income of $1,000 while company B has a total income of $4,000.

Both companies completed the same number of jobs with same amount of time. The difference is Company B is 4 times more profitable with 400% more income.

Xander Cesari's picture

I believe Jonathan's point was that he has those extra 30 jobs per year *because* of this business model. Going RF means he gets a lot more work coming his way and also doesn't have to spend nearly as much time communicating with clients about royalty and rights. So it's not necessarily an option to do 40 jobs per year if you're using RM. You're assuming that the work is unlimited and client management time is negligible, neither of which seem to be true in this case.

Bill Wells's picture

No what I am saying, If 2 companies both make 100k per year. Company A does 10 jobs. Company B does 40 jobs.

Company A is more efficient and more profitable. That is just a fact.

Now with the extra work time, if company A does 10 more jobs (any type work) and make another 100k and if they do 30 jobs that would be 300k.

So company A is 400% more profitable than company B. Company A has annual income of 400k and Company B has annual income of 100k.

Both companies do the same number of jobs and same amount of work. Company A is just worth 4 times as much.

Xander Cesari's picture

I understand exactly what you're saying, your example is just so idealized as to be irrelevant.

In your example, do all jobs take the same amount of time? Is Company A spending 4 times on each job as Company B? If those high dollar jobs involve continuing to manage and enforce rights/royalties then each job adds to overhead, time, and costs, does that factor in?

Are there unlimited numbers of both types of jobs out in the world? Or are there only 10 10k jobs in the area while there are a lot more 2.5k jobs?

Business plans live and die in the details, not generalized platitudes.

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