A Company Wants Photos But Doesn't Want to Pay

A Company Wants Photos But Doesn't Want to Pay

There're so many stories about big brands and companies approaching photographers in the hope of getting free images to use in exchange for the popular currency that is exposure, but what happens when they exclude the photographer from the equation completely and instead head straight to your client asking for free images?

First of all, let me tell you that I am by no means an experienced commercial photographer, as my work primarily lies within the social sphere, such as weddings and portraits. But even with my relatively small experience in the commercial world, I still am aware that successful brands have enough money to use on their marketing department, whether it is to hire a designer to create a brochure of their products or to pay a photographer a fee for licensing an image, which will aid in their quest to attract more clients.

A couple years ago, I did a lifestyle photoshoot for a friend of mine who has her own artisan business. At the time, it was a great learning experience in working closely with a small business owner and combining lifestyle and commercial photography. I did not think much of our shoot until the past few weeks, when my client was approached by a known packaging company, which had noticed a photograph I had taken of my friend and her branding. 

They approached my friend via email by saying they really liked the photograph and wanted to include it in their information leaflet, which they send out to prospective and existing clients, and all they required was the high-resolution file. There was not a single mention of pay at that point. My friend contacted me and asked my opinion of their request because. First of all, she didn't have a high-resolution file. Furthermore, to make their request more appealing, they noted that they would include a credit to the company name. It still remains a mystery whether they meant my friend's business name or that of the photographer. 

Needless to say, I drafted up a response email outlining I am happy to grant them a licensing permission for my photograph, but I would need to know the exact ways they intend to use it, for example, whether strictly online or also in print and so forth to allow me to give them a reasonable price. Neither of us heard back for a while, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went on their website and started the online customer service chat, explained who exactly contacted my friend with the request, and that we never heard back. We found out that the person of contact was on a sick leave for a couple weeks so nobody could give a straight answer as to whether the company wanted to use the image or not. 

Girl holding a coffee cup.

Not just that, I also got a response that they do not know what the reason for this person (who held the title of Executive Assistant and Product Development) contacting my client was, because all their information goes through their marketing and design department. After they returned back from their sick leave, I finally received a brief email stating that the company did not intend to use my image.

I understand if my clients get confused with various ways photographs can and cannot be used, because this can be a minefield not just for them but also for photographers themselves at times. However, it saddens me that there are still companies that want to profit from acquiring free artwork that they subtly avoid paying for, which hits you even harder when you're a loyal paying customer of said company yourself. 

Have you got a similar story to tell? Let us know in the comments below! 

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21 Comments

Got to tell you…if I was a prospective licensee who inquired about using an image and came back from sick leave to find out the photographer had been hounding our customer service line, I would move on. This is not the way to deal with a simple inquiry. Send the email. If you don't hear back, don't start contacting customer service. That's not what they're there for. I think it's more likely that the company didn't want to work with the photographer than they didn't want to pay a licensing fee.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. Makes the photographer appear as highly unprofessional.

Travis Alex's picture

Actually 100% with you on this one. The way this was handled was unprofessional.

Just because someone expressed interest and had intents to use it, does not mean a garunteed sale.

Send the email, if you dont hear back in a while, send a friendly follow up email if you like, but after that, response or not, leave it be.

Calling customer service? For what? This a "Let me speak to the manager" approach.

It seems like the photographer was chasing down the sale and in this case, and makes them comes off desperate.

Anders Madsen's picture

What is that saying...? "Don't attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity" or something like that? To me this sounds like an executive assistant who was meddling in stuff normally handled by the marketing department and was able screw up things royally.

I don't buy Color Thiefs explanation about pissing off a potential customer - if there were no direct phone number or any mention of a specific department in the original e-mail, I would probably go through customer service and have them point me in the right direction as well. Better that than starting to call different departments at random.

My guess is that there was never a real business opportunity here in the first place, just someone trying to get hold of a nice picture with no clue as to how this is done with respect to licensing and usage rights.

Anete Lusina's picture

Think you hit the nail on the head there, Anders.

frank nazario's picture

I agree with you... its YOUR image they are interested in using ... there is absolutely nothing wrong if you try to get in contact with the potential client or try to find in what else can you be of help... that is not unprofessional and using customer service to find out how/who to talk IS NOT being unprofessional

Rob Davis's picture

If you ever want to make money in photography you can't work for free. It's that simple. Yes many people will find someone else and that's okay. They were never a potential client in the first place.

Travis Alex's picture

False: Value over price.

I think I sit half-way between Color Theif and Anders’ comments. It sounds like there wasn’t a real business opportunity here, which you only found out through contacting them multiple ways. However, I would have just left it at the original email you sent. If they wanted you’re photo, they’d have contacted you back - rather than you spending your time persuing.

I know on projects that I’ve worked on, I would get a little bit put offside if someone was trying to make contact an alternative way than instead of with me if I had made the initial contact.

Ahhh, clients. Always trying to put the "free" in freelance.

Anete Lusina's picture

Haha, love this.

My son manages the "family website" where all sorts of news about the extended family is posted. He received an email from an editor at a large publisher of English language travel and tourism information. The editor asked if it was OK to use one of the website's photos of a recent family reunion as a full-page spread in their monthly magazine for a feature article on traveling to family reunions, and if so, was a high-res file available. (I had carefully composed the large group photo in an outdoor setting while we enjoyed each other's company.)
I responded to the email indicating that I was the photog and would be happy to provide the original file, adding, "Please send me your advertising rate-card so that I can determine an appropriate price for use of the image."
A few days later, I received an irate response telling me that, in no way, did they have ANY budget to pay for photos and implying that I had a lot of nerve even suggesting anything other than "exposure" for the use of my photo.
...from a multi-million dollar publishing empire...

When the words "opportunity" and/or "exposure" enter the conversation my usual response is:

"When my bank accepts opportunity and exposure as currency, I'll be happy to discuss payment in that form."

Jon Williams's picture

I’ve noticed that many television news programs are requesting and utilizing submitted photographs for broadcast. They use these photographs in a variety of ways. They also welcome free photographs and video footage of newsworthy events. Meanwhile these stations have laid off most of their own photographers and videographers.

The Chicago Sun Times laid off ALL their photographers a while back -- they depend on the wire feeds (AP, etc.) and user submissions (free). Needless to say they won't get any of mine.

Pedro Quintela's picture

I think this is quite simple, there wasn’t a real business opportunity here. Unfortunately the market if full of speculators that when they see a nice image simply grab it. If its "for free" the deal will be sweet.

The only ones that I allow "free" images is to one of my sponsors, because obviously they send me their gear to use. Since I started I always preferred to lose this so called opportunities then to feel bad after seeing my work/effort/money be used by a non scrupulous company.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

These days because there is an endless supply of cheap clients and naive, undereducated and dilettante photographers, many clients have learned to ask for it for free. That is their business model, free is better than paying for it. No need to be offended by it, just pass on the opportunity.
Going thru customer service instead of dealing with your initial contact was not the way to go. Many times jobs go away or are put on hold for weeks or months. Be patient and follow up in a week or two then leave it alone.
IF they really wanted the image, they would have coughed up the $.

I think they may have had a few choices and since you were asking about being paid they had another photograph that would work at no cost.

A somewhat similar story. A production company producing a documentary recently walked into my co-working space and saw some of my framed and matted images. They inquired about using them as backdrops in the settings for the documentary. I would provide them with high res images that they would have printed in sizes up to 60" x 60".

All I really wanted was credit at that point. I was preparing a license agreement, but the company presented me with one first.

Sticking points:

1. The major network behind the production company dictated the terms of contracts. There was no provision for giving credit to a photographer and they weren't about to change it.

2. The person I was dealing with said that he could get me several hundred dollars for the use of the images over a six week period. I thought, 'Well OK'.

3. Then I read the license agreement and had a problem with the following paragraph:

I hereby grant to Producer the perpetual right to use the Materials (as defined below) in connection
with the production, distribution, exhibition, and/or exploitation of the Program, in any derivative
materials, and in connection with all allied, ancillary and subsidiary rights therein and thereto
(including without limitation advertising, publicity, marketing, promotional and commercial tie-ins,
and merchandising), in all media now known or hereafter devised, throughout the universe.

I mentioned I couldn't agree with these points and was encouraged by the producer to provide a marked up copy with my desired changes (which was basically the images are provided solely for one-time use in filming and nothing else). Within the hour I received an email to the effect that the network does not modify their license agreements, period. So the deal was off.

I've been told this is fairly common in the industry. It was my first experience with this level of arrogance and disdain for the artist.

I was happy to not grant permission for use of my images.

Anete Lusina's picture

Sometimes other things are a lot more worth to us than a few dollars!

I was a member of the Nature Conservancy. I donated money and time. I thought it would be nice to donate a bunch of images, and possibly do some specific local photography for them. My gain would have been "feel good", possible access to their properties and cooperation, and some bragging rights. I was willing to let them use the images in ANY of their promotions and fund raising. There was NO money involved.

After talking to the local rep. head office got back to me. The document sent allowed them to go though my website, pick out what they wanted and them I transferred (effectively) copyright to them. They had the copyright to anything I shot on their property. I would have to ask them permission to use my images. I tried to modify the contract, with the same answer as above.

So the deal was off.

Actually I made money and time out of the whole thing. Let my membership expire. No longer donate money or time.

The license I was presented stated further down that I retained copyright, but the earlier quoted paragraph effectively left me with zero control over how, when, and where my images could be used. They could essentially sell my images for profit ("exploitation of program" and "merchandising" clause) if they wanted. I doubt it would have occurred, but I definitely was not giving that away.

The "opportunity" you were presented with by the Nature Conservancy seems equally ridiculous.