Is TIME Screwing Photographers?

Is TIME Screwing Photographers?

Answer: Yes. But what are you going to do about it?

John Harrington, Photographer and Author of Best Business Practices for Photographers, has a scathing takedown of Time Inc.’s new photographer contract that covers their 23+ brands. At first glance, the new “day rate” (a term that Harrington abhors) of $650 – up from $500 – doesn’t sound so bad when compared to many other publications in the industry, but the devil is in the details. And Harrington rightly makes the point that the rate has less buying power than the $350 rate from the 1980s.

Of notable objection:

  • The concept of “space” rates goes away. Photographers were previously compensated a minimum of $125 each time their photos appeared in print within a magazine. The new contract grabs perpetual rights for “space.” A photo of President Obama that might have previously been used in multiple issues and generated hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for a photographer, can now be used without compensation in any “assigning brand.”
  • Any video shot while on a Time Inc. assignment is a work made for hire – i.e. they own the rights.
  • If an assignment is never published, there is no end to the embargo period.
  • An image that is used on a cover can not be licensed anywhere else.
  • Photographers have no injunctive relief if they believe Time Inc is in violation of the contract.
  • Payment is only paid upon “acceptance,” which is undefined. If an editor doesn’t like the photos, is it unacceptable? What if the story is killed?

Chief Content Officer Norman Pearlstine (who previously worked as Editor-in-Chief for Time magazine from 1994-2005) tried to appeal to emotion in a letter announcing the new contract by romanticizing the “power of iconic photography.” But the new contract is a rights-grab not so subtly disguised in legalese that gives the company the ability to withhold payment even when an assignment is completed. Since Time, Inc split from Time Warner last May, the company has been under enormous financial pressure with the stock dropping from a 52-week high of 25.95 to the current level in the mid- to high- 15s.

I spoke to multiple photographers who have worked for Time Inc, and the reaction has been one of disbelief and anger. One photographer told me, “This is the worst [contract] I’ve seen, and I’ve seen hundreds…It’s not close to being equitable. I bring $75,000 of equipment out to a shoot. $650 is not even remotely close to cutting it [without secondary use].”

Another long time contributor said, “The contract was written by someone who has no concept of what freelance photography is. For them to even propose this goes to show you how clueless they are about working with photographers…A place with such a great photography tradition is run by people who don’t give a shit.”

Time Inc Photographer Contract 2016

The photographers I spoke with aren’t being unrealistic. “No one is asking for $2,000 day rates,” said one. But locking up secondary use, inability to resell cover photos and the sheer gall of forcing a contract on photographers with a “sign or else” ultimatum is a good indication of how the organization views photographers and photography nowadays. At least one group of photographers is planning to attempt contract negotiations in the near future.

The issue of publishers forcing bad contracts on photographers isn’t new, and the lack of a collective response continues to play out like a bad game of prisoner’s dilemma. On Facebook, photographer Todd Bigelow lamented the number of times he walked away from a bad contract “while hoping for a collective response.” Much to his dismay, “The collective response never happened as each photographer did what they thought was best for them.”

Unfortunately for photographers, the magazine industry is well-organized, and many publishers are modifying contracts under guidelines issued by the Magazine Publishers Association, which unsurprisingly calls for language that benefits publishers at the expense of content creators. Rest assured, more publishers will adopt Time-esque as more photographers show a willingness to sign the contract.

ASMP Executive Director Tom Kennedy expressed displeasure with the lack of inclusion of the creator class. “My problem with the way that Time has done this is that they didn’t bring on board the photographers to help address the issues. I think this was a big tactical error. Photographers recognize that things need to change, and they’re willing to meet with management.”

It has been uttered many times, but bears repeating: When news organizations are owned by for-profit entities, cost-cutting and maximization of profits become more important than the quality of the content, and by proxy, the welfare of the content creators. Clicks become more important than quality (thus the Buzzfeed-ification of news), and content represents nothing more than a “thing” to fill a screen rather than something thought-provoking and informative.

Publishers don’t even have to act in an overtly nefarious way because they know a line of suckers waiting to work on the cheap (or free) is queuing around the corner. Trade organizations, with their waning membership, could redefine themselves in the current environment by providing leadership and guidance (i.e. Why is Harrington providing this info first?) on matters such as this rather than producing yet another multimedia workshop. Kennedy pointed out the lack of clout of any single trade association, “We are fragmented in more narrowly representing specific classes of photographers as creators and I think the solution is in reshaping into an umbrella organization that represents all photographers more coherently.” Further, the membership doesn’t think nor act monolithically in the digital age. “Some of the older members want to reconsider unionization. Some of the younger members want to become famous on Instagram and believe they will get assignments from that fame.” Both points of view are valid, but it creates a quandary in creating an allied front.

Ultimately, the responsibilities lies with photographers. When do the complaints translate into action? When does a person of James Nachtwey’s stature stand-up to the hand that feeds him on behalf of all photographers? And if he does, will photographers fall in line to protect their collective interests? You can only point the finger so many times before you’re confronted with a bad contract and an ultimatum to sign or lose a client. This is a bad contract. What will you do?

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 28 comments for this article
  1. PF BENTLEY at 2:21 pm

    It’s 2000 all over again. Same contract bullshit 15 years later and with the same guy Norm Pearlstine, who, as then Editor in Chief, did not impede my departure after 20 years as a contract photographer. We were being paid $500 then and I spent 4 months of my own time not covering the presidential campaign but negotiating with the AOL lawyers on behalf of the photographers.

    I ended up resigning my post in frustration.
    I was not going to release my images for TIME’s unlimited use in perpetuity on devices currently in use and devices not yet invented for $500 a day.
    As I told the three lawyers, “perpetuity is a long time.”

    I went to see then Managing Editor Walter Isaacson, who I knew from when he was a reporter and then upstairs to Pearlstine. Either one could of changed things, but did nothing.
    I worked so hard to get hired by TIME, and in the end no one really gave a shit, and those who did care had no say. The wonderful photo department at TIME always backed up the photographers but had less and less power as the years went by.

    The ironic part is I continued to work for TIME (and then Newsweek too) under my own terms which where better than the contract terms.

    When I look at my contract from 1984, it’s very for the photographer’s benefit and simple to read.
    That slowly evolved to a corporation benefit contract as TIME Inc lost it’s journalistic influence in the merge to TIME-Warner and then further to AOL.
    MBA’s who had no concept of how we did our jobs, took over from journalists running the company.

    Henry Luce would not approve.

  2. Frank Evers at 5:17 pm

    The bottom line about this or any creative contract that an artist (or an artist’s representative) receives, is that it HAS to reflect both sides of the equation.

    When you receive ANY contract, you must scratch out the parts that you cannot (and should not) agree to and send it back with your revisions. If they want you to work for them, they will have to accept your terms or start moving towards a common position that you both can accept. If they won’t budge, and claim that the contract is inviolable, then walk away.

  3. Jeff at 7:20 pm

    More people need to learn what “no” means. So many people turn giddy with the thought of being published. And they’re willing to do assighnments for a photo credit. I’ve yet to see any bank take photo credits.

  4. David Burnett at 11:18 pm

    Sad to say but this is really the end of TIME Inc. as a creative photographic powerhouse. LIFE ruled the roost for decades, and when LIFE folded in 1972 (yes, that is already 43 years ago!) TIME picked up the banner, as did PEOPLE in some regard. No matter who were the editors, and there were many over the decades, there was always a latent understanding that the creative power of the photographers was something to be nurtured and harnessed for the well-being of the magazines, and therefore, the company. Now it is clear the pencils have won all the internal battles (find a company where that didnt happen!?) and as what no doubt happened at all the media companies along the way, the dozens of highly paid MBAs who sit around in a room thinking of ways to feather their own offices by coming up with even more draconian measures with their creative “partners” … ways of extending their “brand” and not really understanding, or giving a damn about the people who make the magazines a property worth picking up in the first place. You could probably say that yes, the internet changed everything, that it’s not even a case of “good being the enemy of perfect”… it’s more like “good enough” is the enemy of everything creative. One of the great fueling powers of the 70s and 80s was that the magazines had not only a budget to make things happen, and pages in which to show off those things, but above all, a desire to show their excellence to the world. That quest for excellence is what drove so many, both editors and photographers. I worked for TIME for 47 years (but who’s counting?) and I suspect that during that time we both thought we were getting a pretty good deal. What is clear now is that only one side is getting any kind of a good deal, and it’s clearly not the photographers. The only thing which MIGHT budge things back towards center a bit…. and I wonder if even that will make a difference…. is if a half dozen of the heavy weights who shoot for TIME now and then decide they just don’t need the work that bad. I won’t name them, but I’m sure they know who they are. And while you can always justify taking a crappy job in the name of “I always wanted to photograph xxxxx….” doing so under these new conditions will really do no one any good, especially those photographers.

    • PF BENTLEY at 11:15 am

      Thank you David for your comments which are right on the mark. Note: David and I have been friends and colleagues for many decades now – yikes!

      One requirement I have today from clients with bad track records of late payment is “if I can transmit, you can transmit”. It’s a simple concept. Publications expect us to transmit images on a deadline which I of course do, but I withhold the link until the client transmits the payment into my PayPal account or if they want into my bank account. Once the funds are paid they get the link. Works nicely and very fair.

      Do we go out for a meal and say, bill me, I’ll pay in 90 days? No, one way or the other, by cash or credit card the restaurant gets it’s funds for meal services it provided.

      We live in a high tech world and it should work both ways. For clients who pay timely, no problem, I email the invoice and within 15 days a check is mailed.

      • Dave Getzschman at 6:21 pm

        PF, here, here!

        I’m convinced that accounts payable departments in this industry are told “don’t pay these freelancers until they call and complain.” I sincerely play bill collector as often as I take pictures.

        Where I can, I’m now telling clients that they can have images once my invoice is paid.

  5. Alex S. at 6:44 am

    “When news organizations are owned by for-profit entities, cost-cutting and maximization of profits become more important than the quality of the content, and by proxy, the welfare of the content creators.”

    What’s wrong with news organisations being “for-profit” entities? How else would you like them to function? As charities? And aren’t photographers also “for-profit” entities. If they can’t make a profit from working under this contract then nobody is forcing them to sign it.

    As to the quality of Time’s content, well that’s up the management to make a business decision on the quality of their product versus costs, and not up to the photographer or anybody else hired by them.

    And no, Time isn’t obliged to take into consideration the “welfare” of the content creators (within reason and subject to laws etc) and $650 per day is hardly oppressive.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 11:27 am

      What’s wrong with paying photographers net 30? What wrong with paying them when a photo is used in multiple places generating advertising dollars?

      I don’t see this as a zero sum game. A contract can be constructed that preserved the interests of both parties.

    • John Ulan at 7:29 pm


      I have read no one say that profit is evil. All I’ve read is that compensation must be reasonable… and if compensation is not reasonable, than we owe it to ourselves to work together to reverse this error. We must show consumers of high quality photography (and the confused creators of good work) that our product is of superior value. I get the feeling that you don’t earn your entire living from photography, so please allow me to try to explain a little more.

      $650.00/day can be a fine living, if you work at that rate, 5 days a week. Most professionals do not. In order to attract clients, capable of paying reasonable rates, one must have the experience and the skills to satisfy them. To achieve this level of professionalism, when you are not creating 5 days a week, the photographer must expend a disproportionate amount of energy on each assignment. This excessive amount of energy must get compensated at some point. If the “day rate” does not properly compensate than other methods must exist, to dollar-cost average out the photographers efforts. If this dollar-cost averaging doesn’t take place, you starve. Good photographers who starve go out of business. When good photographers go out of business, photography is devalued and consumers lose a tangible connection with quality. We are then left with an industry wide, “race to the bottom”.

      The western world has been most successful when high standards and reasonable rewards have been demanded by everyone. When this balance is out of sync the relationship is destined to fail.

      In many ways I blame the consumers of photography less than I blame us. We all too often see ourselves as romantic lone wolves, with “individual styles”. We forget that successful wolves travel in packs!

  6. Deirdre at 9:28 am

    As a photographer who has time and time again(no pun intended) lost jobs because I’ve said NO, in the past, I’ve been waiting for this to happen. And I hate saying this. I want to become published under a good media outlet, BUT not like this. I know my worth and I will continue to educate clients and other photographers about bad contracts. However, what should I do if I want to get my name out there?

  7. The Truth at 10:51 am

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why photographers are surprised by this.

    Print media is dying and they’re going to squeeze pennies from every nook and cranny.

    And like it or note, there will always be plenty of photographers willing to say yes to crappy rates and crappy contracts.

    Publications and businesses are NEVER going to put photographers interests first. Why don’t photographers seem to understand this?

      • Alex S. at 6:54 am

        Indeed, but why not cut costs where you can? Most photographers I know are always happy to cut costs. And if the deal on offer is so unfair, nobody is being forced into it.

  8. Gary Parker at 1:19 pm

    Over half our income comes from licensing usage rights of existing imagery. The only way this work can possibly generate income is if we adamantly refuse to sign away our rights. No, hell no, I’d rather starve than supply a mega corp with free imagery to license. No way. Becoming a farmer is far more appealing. Without the income generated from licensing, we’d have a very tough time surviving in this increasingly difficult business. It’s been obvious for years usage rights keep our business running so we absolultey say HELL NO to rights grabs. Are we rich enough to turn away work? Another HELL NO – I don’t know any wealthy photographers. The bottom line remains that photography is NOT a sustaining or even an intelligent business when we give it away for free, especially to mega corps.

    We recently had to walk away from a $12k job because the attorney who drew up the contract for me to create conceptual illustrations felt I should forfeit all rights to use the images for portfolio or other. The demand went further than I’d seen in demanding we deliver the images then destroy all exisitng files – we were never to use the very cool illustrations even on my website “due to privacy concerns.” YET the pics were for a website where the images could be stolen the day site went online? This obviously makes no sense in terms of privacy.

    The lawyer and creative director were shocked when I refused to do the shoot based on the creative suck of making cool illustrations I could never use or show anyone. I can’t even imagine how badly that would suck… The lawyer was genuinely blown away at my attitude asking the creative director “why would anyone walk away from $12k for such petty reasons?” NOT being allowed to use my own work is far from petty but lost on a lawyer without a creative cell in his body. We pointed out that if all previous clients had demanded the same, I wouldn’t have a website and this company who seemed to love my work would have no idea I even exist. Owning the rights to our own work is imperative to making a living in photography.

    There’s only one way to bust this trend – don’t sign restrictive contracts. “Yes, but I need the money and if I don’t sign, somebody else will get the job.” This may be true but I’m a photographer since it’s my lifestyle which has the side effect of providing income. If I sign away the rights to my work, my ability to survive in this business is so greatly reduced there’s no point continuing in this field. So what’s to lose by not signing lousy contracts?

    If every dues-paid photographer said HELL NO to Time’s and every other client’s ripoff contracts, we’d have bargaining power.

  9. Will Knot at 5:33 pm

    Cue the tier two “guys with cameras” and those whose “real passion is photography” but toil in their various day jobs dreaming of a khaki shirt, combat pants, a Time press pass and a Domke full of M’s . Photography is now full of these eager shit heads who see the above as their golden opportunity to seize an assignment from those who rightly deserve it and get their name in 8 point print deep in the gutter so they can wank to the idea of calling themselves a “photojournalist”. These guys will eventually pay Time $500 for the privilege, I guarantee it.

    What I’m wondering is, if everyone is really saying no, where are they going to get images from? Right, the above mentioned shit-heads. And these new “contributors” need to be named and shamed, they’re ruining the institution of photojournalism and visual storytelling (or at least speeding its demise) and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if some of them faced the humiliation publicly of being the scab that helped break the business . Its time for some sort of organization that endorses minimum rates that everyone adheres to and a few (figurative) knee cappings for those that don’t “play for the benefit of the trade” as we used to say on the docks.

  10. Pingback: Is TIME Screwing Their Photographers? Here is A Look at Its Changing Contracts - DIY Photography
  11. Thomas Pickard at 2:42 am

    This article should be titled “Photographer’s Screwing Themselves”.

    Easy to blame Time Inc, but Time Inc is a business and they do what a lot of businesses do – try and get something for as cheap as possible.

    It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.

      • at 1:46 pm

        Henry, Thomas is right. It’s not about sides, it’s about reality. Publishing is a business.

        Maybe the photo department cares about you as a person and enjoys working with you, but to the corporate folks (and the lawyers writing these agreements), we are just faceless content providers. There’s nothing written here with malice, only the facts.

        To them, The Great Henry Leutwyler, The Great Thomas Pickard, The Great PF Bentley and The Great Whoever are all replaceable with countless others wanting to provide content at cheaper rates. Yes, it’s disappointing in our idealistic way, but, like the saying goes, “it’s nothing personal, just business.”

  12. John Ulan at 1:32 pm

    I don’t know if I’m unique but, (in my experience) referrals from other photographers have resulted in exponentially more assignments than referrals from the actual clients. I have worked for Time, but only on a subcontracted basis , through agencies like the Associated Press. As a self employed businessman I choose to support my photographer community, even if they are my competition. In the long run, supporting fellow photographers will benefit us more than supporting substandard clients.

  13. annon at 2:11 pm

    I never signed the last shitty contract yet they keep hiring me because I do good work for them and make their magazines look good. Photographers should never sign a one fits all contract. Nor should any artist. Ignore this contract and keep doing great work, if they want your photos in their magazine they will figure out a way to make it work for you. We have all the cards in this, we have the talent they have empty white pages. Stick to your principals.

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