Leica X Vario - Stock Photography and the 'curse' of Royalty-Free


Stock Photography used to be simple. Take your picture. (On transparency film) Have it processed. Put it into a card mount. Add some basic information about where and what. Send it to your picture library. Done. Things are a bit more complicated these days. 

The above images are in fact not that useful for stock photography. They can't be used as royalty-free, without a property release from the owners or a model release from the people because of the people and trademarks in the pictures and the fact that it was shot in a private location that requires payment to enter. Royalty-free used to mean just a one-off payment instead of complicated licensing and use restrictions, but now it means more than that, at least in microstock library terms. The complication is that libraries seem to have a different take on what this is. And it's actually impossible for me to explain what these differences are, because they are not obviously stated anywhere. The simplest explanation is that royalty-free means (most of the time) that you can download an image for a set fee and then use it for whatever you want, whenever you want and as many times as you want now and in the future. More or less!!

For example, the album was shot at Hidcote Manor gardens in the Cotswolds. This is a world-famous garden and tourist attraction owned by the National Trust, a UK based charity that buys Stately Homes and the like and renovates and administers them, charging people to visit. Now some libraries I sell through won't touch pictures of these properties at all, however some are happy to take them and sell them royalty-free if there are no recognisable people or trademarks. Some will sell them with recognisable people or trademarks as editorial images, i.e. for newspapers, magazine and books, but not for advertising. And the pictures are not allowed to be changed and 'misrepresented' which means that they pretty much have to be published as part of an article on that location. But then some won't take them as editorial either without the appropriate releases.

Complicated? You bet. And what results from this is that stock picture libraries are crammed full of bland, generic pictures that show no context whatsoever. And they are also full of model released people shots shot with......yes, models. Cartier-Bresson and the other famous street photographers wouldn't get a look in here!! Incidentally Robert Doisneau's famous image The Kiss was apparently the subject of two different lawsuits from different couples claiming it was them in the picture.

Many photographers also shoot pictures of their families and friends and get them model released. However, if you are thinking of doing this then you should be aware of the 'can be used for any purpose' nature of model released royalty-free. For example I shot some stock pictures of one of my nephews when he was 14 and his mother signed the model release form. About a year ago one of my libraries who contact photographers if 'sensitive' use is required, phoned me up to ask if was OK for one of the pictures that I took of my nephew, of him looking at a laptop screen, could be used for an article on teenagers looking at pornography on the internet. The plan was to photoshop in a porn picture onto the screen. My Nephews face would also remain visible. I said no, but it wouldn't be difficult for the client to get a similar picture from a microstock site. So it's really a question of how comfortable you would be opening up a newspaper or accessing a website that had a faked picture of one of your recognisable children, relatives or friends looking at pornography.

Landscape images are less of a problem. However one of my libraries once had a problem with someone who owned a house in the middle of landscape I had shot and which was used as the front cover of a well-known countryside magazine. I was standing on a public footpath when I took the image so there was no problem with that but because I used a telephoto lens the house owner was insisting that I was standing on his land when I took the picture and wanted a large sum as 'damages'. The picture library eventually saw him off, but this is a situation that both the library and I could have done without. 

The situation is caused by the fact that people who spot themselves in pictures and who own various properties seen in published material are much more inclined to sue these days. Often it, has to be said, in the misguided belief that there is a lot of money to be made. There usually isn't. People aren't flattered anymore that they appear in the papers or a magazine, they are more interested in 'Show me the money!' And yes you can understand the problems of the man whose wife divorced him because a picture of him having an intimate encounter with someone who wasn't his wife, was published front page in a newspaper. A picture of a celebrity in the news just happened to feature a clear view of the illicit couple 'getting to know each other' in a restaurant behind. But then if you can't stand the heat..... etc.

So as I indicated, all of this results in stock photographers (myself included) 'playing it safe' to a large extent. I indicated in a previous post that I was intending to shoot more 'real' pictures and sell them for editorial purposes, however that plan has been put on the back burner since several libraries just wouldn't accept them without releases. Now I still take pictures because I want to, even when I know that I can't use it for stock or sell it. But if you have any intention of selling your work, or do already then it is a serious consideration. And yes newspapers and other news outlets are subject to the same restrictions but they get away with it because their lawyers will argue 'public interest' in perpetuity and if for example a picture of a celebrity is published in hundreds of media outlets across the world, attempting to get legal redress over that would bankrupt even the most well-heeled.

So yes I do think that in many situations royalty-free selling of images is a curse. It does influence photographers these days and I certainly have put down my camera on many occasions, thinking 'It's not worth the trouble'. And that's not a good thing and in many ways it is self-censorship. However, there is an important point to be made here. Because there have been serious abuses. Perhaps the most well-know is many years ago a magazine bought an image from Getty, one of the major players in stock photography. It was of two middle-aged German women cooking. Pretty non-controversial you might think. However, it was published in a magazine with cartoon drawing added and the result was mocking, insulting and very embarrassing to the women. Getty sued and eventually won the case, but of course the damage had already been done. And I'm sure we can all imagine situations where we wouldn't want images of ourselves and our families or friends plastered all over the media. And with certain sections of the 'facebook / youtube' generation seemingly not caring about peoples privacy or dignity anymore, these situations are liable to occur more and more.

So what's the answer? Well I certainly have no idea. Any kind of balance between photographic integrity and the 'honesty' of images versus the rights of us as individuals or groups to have our activities respected is unbelievably difficult to achieve. Intrusion is commonplace these days and I am prepared as a photographer to do what I can not to make that worse. But that also means that I have to examine many of my pictures minutely to remove anything that might offend or be the subject of possible legal action. And yes that does mean that a lot of the photography that we see published is 'false' and in many ways 'neutered'. Maybe the smartphone revolution is going to be the only way we record real life after all. 

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