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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Previous comments
Jonathan Reid's picture

I think you've touched on an important point in your statement - working with the client to provide them a great service with a license that works for both of you. Too often as photographers we treat our clients as the enemy.

Jason Hughes's picture

Don't get me wrong...there are still a fair amount of clients that I have to walk away from because the costs/budgets outweigh the profit. (But that's a problem for all of us) The RF model is a viable option, but works most effectively for situations in which the client respects your creative fees AND is open to licensing. From my personal experience where I do run into most of my roadblocks are with traditional work for hire gigs where they own full rights. Trying to explain licensing, or move them toward an independent contractor agreement for my wallet's sake seems a foreign concept to those clients.

Christoph .'s picture

In the age of lowered bars and iPhone photographers handling marketing for businesses, I find the RM model increasingly difficult for clients to swallow, and do understand the rationale of RF as outlined in this article.

Andre Jones's picture

I believe this was a great and informative article. It is your choice whether to follow either form of licensing so for anyone upset at this photographer you shouldn't be. The photographer isn't offering a cheap option they are simply giving a different side to things. You can actually use both modes of licensing in your business with different clients. I know a few Getty Images photographers who do that now they pick and choose what model to use. Don't waste your time commenting to argue and show your disdain for this photographer's point of view. If you can learn from this article do so if you cant then move on. It is as simple as that business models especially as artists are fluid systems, what was considered the go to 10 years ago could be obsolete now. Take in all of these articles with an open mind please. And to the author thank you for your contribution I definitely learned and will apply these lessons in my own way!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thank you for the feedback. A lot of wisdom in there!

This licensing strategy has worked well for me.

I’m located in the US. In 2018, a new client wanted to own the copyrights to the commercial assignment photographs I was hired to create for use in its printed brochures and on web and social media sites. I ask if they were going to register the images’ with the US Copyright Office, and if they knew how to complete the copyright registration application (registration, among other benefits, helps prove authorship and provides legal standing to pursue competitors or others who infringe the images). They obviously said “no.”

I also inquired if their platforms needed to be updated with new, exciting photographs every two or so years to keep their sites and message fresh and updated, and they said “yes.”

I proposed and they agreed that I would retain all the assignment copyrights and timely registered them with the US Copyright Office (I billed them for the copyright registration fees). The client, in turn, was granted a two-year license to exploit the images in its media. If needed, the client has the option to renew the license.

This has been a repeat client who’s been very happy with the images; I’ve completed two assignment sessions to date. They’ve also expressed interest in recording short customer video testimonials. I’m planning on using the same business licensing method.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Nicely done! I’ve realised from this discussion that the form of photography that you do can make a difference to your licensing approach. Architects, for example, won’t update images 2 years later as by that time, the original design will have been altered.

Darren Loveland's picture

Great article, it's very refreshing to hear a strong argument in favor of RF. As some of the comments referenced below, I too have found a hybrid approach with rights.

I follow the RF model with additional verbiage pertaining to 3rd party rights, ad campaigns, or even prints requiring a sign off and percentage of revenue to myself.

I'm a relatively "new" professional photographer, starting in 2012 with my first paid work, and I truly believe the RM model is outdated for most genres of photography or reserved for large ad campaigns where many parties benefit from your work and the campaign relevancy might expire.

If one of my small business clients hired me to capture lifestyle images for the website and I drafted up a contract stating they would have to pay me every year to keep using the photos, they would quickly move on to another photographer with a RF version of the contract. It's just a fact of business in today's world for most small companies or individual clients. Anyone who is standing up hard for the RM model either has some old god-fathered in clients that just happily send them money, they are lucky enough to work with huge companies and agencies (not all us are on that level), or they are in for a rude awakening in the near future as business models are shifting.

What about 3rd party usage with RF model? Assuming you don't let the architect give away the images to those who want them like the glass supplier, contractor, etc..