Home NEWS ENTERTAINMENT 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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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?

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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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