Battle Royale over Royalty-Free

Royalty-Free (RF) licensing has been called the “scourge” and the “death” of the industry. RF is a very vague, general use license that allows the purchaser to use the image however they want as long as they don’t resell it or transfer the “assignment” of the image. For example, I could buy a CD filled with another photographer’s images and re-use the same image from project to project without paying additional licensing.

The spread of RF has led to the re-use of many popular images by multiple companies in the same industry on many occasions. I’ve seen the same Photodisc images of people of various ethnicities shot against white seamless since the mid 1990s.

Before I verbally crucify the use of RF images, let’s analyze why photo buyers like them. First, the license is easy to understand. Buy it, use it however you want. If you’ve ever tried to get a quote on a rights-managed image, you know how complicated it can be. In many cases, the photographer has no idea how to price the image because pricing is irregular and arbitrary. In other cases, it’s difficult to figure out all the parameters. Am I looking for an exclusive use of the image in North America on fewer than 20 billboards for 60 days with a first right of refusal on extending the licensing for a year?

Secondly, RF is cheap. Because RF is not priced by usage, you can get an image for a few hundred dollars and use it for a personal promotion, a website, and a national ad campaign. We are all consumers, and we all are faced with pricing decisions daily. Should I buy the $.99 burger at Wendy’s or the $50 kobe beef burger? Some people are willing to pay for exclusivity, even if there are diminishing returns on the high end of the curve. But when brands aren’t involved, most people will usually choose the cheaper option.

Often, RF images have no qualities that make them distinctive. How many images of a rubber ducky shot on white seamless have you seen? Does it matter if it was taken by Avedon (not a noted product photographer, btw) or some photo student? For purposes of stock imagery, the answer is overwhelmingly “no.” I am unwilling to pay a premium for a generic image, even if it’s taken by a name-brand photographer.

So therein lies the rub. We can’t assume that all subject matter in all settings has an equal value as rights-managed imagery. And because photographers, even good ones(!), are in overabundance, the photographer is at a distinct disadvantage in what is a buyer’s market. The buyer doesn’t care about you making a living. He/She only cares about getting a good value.

RF will never go away, so we have to learn how to live with it. I personally believe that some images, like the rubber ducky, need to be licensable with a pricing model that is somewhere between RF and rights-managed. One possible solution: A one-time use license that doesn’t take size or circulation into account.

Photographers who complain about RF are like the record labels that complain about file swapping. File swapping occurs because of the simplicity and convenience of the model. The Internet has allowed and almost mandated that dealing with digital assets be easy. Consumers will continue to seek RF until we personally educate every single one of them, or more realistically, until we find an easier way to price and distribute rights-managed imagery.

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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