Photographer Naively Uploads Photo to Royalty-Free Stock Site, Finds Image Used on 500,000+ Walmart Products

Photographer Naively Uploads Photo to Royalty-Free Stock Site, Finds Image Used on 500,000+ Walmart Products

One photographer has learned about royalty-free licensing the hard way. After failing to read the terms and conditions when uploading to Shutterstock, he found his image was used on over 500,000 units of merchandise being sold at Walmart stores. He received $1.88.

Michael Stemm, who is based in Fredericton, often finds himself taking pictures in the city. The photo in question is one he took of a snowy bridge back in December 2017. In seeking additional income from his photography, he uploaded the photo the following February, as part of Shutterstock’s royalty-free library.

He then completely forgot he had even done so, until a couple of months later when friends discovered it again. As per his own words in a video posted to his Facebook, which has 70,000 views at the time of writing, Stemm found the picture used on a calendar, greeting cards, and large throw blanket, all of which were on sale at Walmart.

So, what happened? Newfoundland-based Islandwide Distributors were using it on their merchandise, having purchased it from Shutterstock. Upon further inquiry, Stemm discovered the company has distributed 500,000 units of the calendars and cards. Ordinarily, usage of an image for such a large production would equal a hefty payday for a photographer. However, Stemm pocketed only $1.88 for the sale. To add insult to injury, he is also unable to redeem the money until his account reaches $50.

Speaking of the incident, he said:

[I feel I’m] being taken advantage of: the small guy who makes the time, effort to take the picture, and upload, and now, it’s being exploited by big companies.

Marc Belliveau, a copyright specialist of over 25 years, dispelled any foul play and said the situation is “consistent with copyright law.”

Walmart reached out to Stemm in the comment section of his Facebook video. He says he sent them his details but is yet to hear back.

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50 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

Everything about that video, from the title ("...Selling Without My Permission") to his sense of entitlement annoyed the daylights out of me. Like it or not, everything that happened here was legal and standard. You deciding to experiment with stock photography and not bothering to read the terms and conditions is not the problem of the companies on the other end of the transaction. Show some responsibility for your business, do the proper research, and don't blame others when your own laziness and apathy toward being informed in financial transactions bites you in the butt.

Jack Alexander's picture

It's a hard pill to swallow, and naturally I'm always on the side of the photographer, but really he only has himself to blame for this one sadly. A lesson he'll never make again, I'm sure...

Actually, Jack Alexander, you are not always on the side of the photographer, even when you should be. The distributor did not purchase the enhanced license required to produce products like blankets. The reason the photographer only got $1.88 is because they purchased the standard license. Shutterstock's terms require purchase of the enhanced license in order to produce blankets and other merchandise. So the distributor is the one to blame. But you took the wrong lesson from this story, and you published the wrong lesson about it. By blaming the photographer, you let the distributor get away with cheating the photographer and cheating Shutterstock too.

Alex Cooke's picture

It's likely the company has a premiere account agreement with Shutterstock that includes the enhanced model because merchandising graphics departments buy up cheap art all the time. Even if the company didn't purchase the correct license, that doesn't change the transaction he agreed to between him and Shutterstock. Even if we assume that they purchased a single, ad hoc license (which 99% likely isn't the case), he would have netted, what, $60 or $80 for an image being used on a half million products? It's still terrible judgment on his part.

Shutterstock's terms explain how much the photographer gets for enhanced license purchases. It's clearly not $1.88. It's 20% of the purchase, up to $80. If the distribution company has some defense to dishonestly purchasing the "standard" license, the burden is on them to prove it via whatever agreement they have with Shutterstock. As far as I know, they haven't presented any defense. Apparently everyone is piling on the photographer, while not asking the buyer or Shutterstock the relevant questions.

Sure $60 to $80 isn't a lot of money for this, but it's $60 to $80 more than he got. It's $60 to $80 stolen from his pocket. It's the difference between getting paid X dollars and approximately 40X dollars. You don't think a difference of 40X is relevant? Then you won't mind getting paid just ~ 3% of what you're entitled to under your agreements, right? It seems you would rather blame the photographer than the actual wrongdoer.

Alex Cooke's picture

No, in absolute terms, I think a difference of $58 to $78 pales in comparison to the larger issue: a photographer willingly submitted himself to a business transaction designed to take advantage of him, then got upset when he was taken advantage of because he didn't do his homework.

Wow, so you are totally ignoring the fact that they paid him about 3% of what Shutterstock's terms require them to pay. You are just piling on and blaming the photographer, totally excusing the gross violation of the Shutterstock terms. Just blame the photographer, again and again. The photographer made a deal with clear terms. The distributors violated it, whether out of ignorance or as a intentional theft. You can say there is a "larger issue" — of course there is. But there is also a very clear violation of the license terms and a gross underpayment of what is due. The distributor is required to read the Shutterstock terms and abide by them. To ignore that is to blame the wrong party, and to excuse the distributor's behavior. It's pretty sad when photographers don't support a photographer who was so obviously cheated of even the $58 to $78 that he was due.

Alex Cooke's picture

We don't know that there was a violation of the terms, and I doubt there was; see my response about the company likely having a premiere account with Shutterstock. And, for the sake of the argument you're making, let's assume that an agreement was violated. Then there's two issues: the distributor violating the contract with the stock agency and the photographer who still made a bad business deal out of willful ignorance. I would say the distributor still needs to be held responsible and would have plenty of an opinion on their role in hurting the industry, but my opinion on the photographer would remain the same.

Daniel Medley's picture

Absolutely. I don't get the "taken advantage of" quip. No one held a gun to his head and forced him to upload the image under the TOS that he did not take the time to read.

Yan Pekar's picture

Totally agreed. Best reply ever. Thank you.

Graham Taylor's picture

The difference between a professional and someone who takes good photos.

Rick Nash's picture

You might be wrong on this one. Find my comment below.

Alex Cooke's picture

I saw. It's likely the company has a premiere account agreement with Shutterstock that includes the enhanced model because merchandising graphics departments buy up cheap art all the time. Even if the company didn't purchase the correct license, that doesn't change the transaction he agreed to between him and Shutterstock. Even if we assume that they purchased a single, ad hoc license (which 99% likely isn't the case), he would have netted, what, $60 or $80 for an image being used on a half million products? It's still terrible judgment on his part.

Rick Nash's picture

I agree that compensation at $60-$80 is insufficient for any 500K+ products. However that's clealy written in the terms. Some stock sites might pay better but not going to provide a living out of sales.

Mike Kelley's picture

Stop putting your photographs on stock websites. Don't fall for the marketing bait, it's almost NEVER worth it.

Johnny Rico's picture

But what about all those sponsored, pro Micro Stock articles posted on Fstoppers? How do you feel about those.

Gerald Bertram's picture

I'd be curious to know this as well.

Mike Kelley's picture

Maybe I need to have a chat with the boys :)

Carl Murray's picture

Does that "marketing bait" include the MANY "sponsored" articles here on Fstoppers for stock websites? :P

Studio 403's picture

Good post, I get it. I have been a dumbo too...for me it was my ego, just to get "noticed"? The big companies know the game, and if legal, will skin us all and enjoy the profits. When in doubt, I got to my mirror, "who's to blame". I have never found anyone but me looking at me.

Johnny Rico's picture

And that Ladies and Gents is why Micro Stock is a cancer to the industry.

Yan Pekar's picture

"insult to injury"?? It sounds like the photographer did not bother to get familiar with terms and conditions, and then started thinking how much could be earned, or thinking how famous he could have become if the world would know the name of the photographer...What insult and what injury are you talking about?:) Everything seem to have been in line with legal matters.

Steven Magner's picture

“Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”

This felt like a weird Jerry Springer confessional

Jonathan Brady's picture

This is hilarious!

Rifki Syahputra's picture

sharing is good.
it's Christmas anyway

michael buehrle's picture

it is a nice pic though. i can see why walmart wanted it.

Having no experience with Shutterstock, I don't understand why he would only be paid $1.88. Is that their going rate for using/ selling your images?

If so, then he was an idiot for uploading even a single one. How does he expect to make even minimum wage getting paid $1.88 per image?

Michael Jin's picture

Still better than the people uploading their images for FREE use on Unsplash.

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