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Stock, Copyright and License
By Andrew Hudson Published: June 7, 2011 Updated: September 1, 2016
We’ll be using the term “stock” a lot so let’s discuss it. A “stock photo” is a picture that you’ve already taken — it’s in your stockpile (your storage, inventory) of pictures available to use now.
The opposite of stock is “assignment” or “work-for-hire” photography, where someone pays you to take a photo. Notice the difference in time. Looking from the perspective of a designer, “stock” photos have been taken (past tense) and exist now, whereas “assignment/hire” photos will be taken (future tense) and don’t exist now.
Designers like using stock photos because the pictures already exist. Hiring photographers is time-consuming and expensive. Unless there’s something very specific that the designer, publisher, or client wants (such as in advertising), it’s faster and cheaper to buy stock photos.
In the past, stock photographers had to perform manual searches and mail slides (often originals), which required a lot of time and effort. But today, photography allows for quick searches of “tagged” images, and fast delivery with “uploading,” email, and “FTP.” The combination of cameras, computers, and the Internet, has greatly empowered photographers, allowing more people to make money from photography.
The key to stock photography is not so much the photo itself but the photo’s ownership. For this, we give thanks to the important concept called copyright.
“How do I copyright my photo?” You don’t. It’s already copyrighted. You don’t need to submit a form, and you don’t have to use that “©” symbol or a watermark — those are just customary ways of identifying the copyright owner.
Copyright is an intellectual property right which (in U.S. and European law) is automatically bestowed exclusively upon the author (you) at the instant the artwork is created, e.g. when you press the shutter release. If you took the picture, you own the copyright, and it’s yours to use. (Note that other laws limit what type of picture you can sell).
But: “Will publishers use my photo without paying?” Generally no, as publishers live by copyright law and they usually have established rates which they gladly pay. A more likely problem is that publishers may not know that you are the copyright owner, which goes back to that “©” symbol and watermark.
Now that you automatically own the copyright, you can sell rights to other people with a license.
The benefit of copyright, is that you can license your photographs. With a stock photo, you don’t sell the photo, you license it — you permit a client to use the image in exchange for money. You can negotiate the terms of the license — in what ways the client can reproduce the image and for how long — and the price.
For example, you can offer to license a photo to a magazine client for the following terms: $50 to use the photo on a web page, $100 inside the magazine, $600 on the cover, $1,000 on an advert, non-exclusive for one year. Thus, if the client uses your picture on the web and in the magazine, it’s $150, and if they want to do that for two years, it’s $300.
Most importantly, you don’t give up the copyright, you retain the copyright.
Since you retain the copyright, you can license the same photo again and again. (That’s why the above example included the term “non-exclusive,” to note that you can still license the image to other clients.) Thus, you can get a future revenue stream. You can do nothing and get a monthly check — now that’s the life. Many professional photographers make a large part of their income from stock.
Note that assignment photography can be different. If you are hired to take a photo, depending upon the agreement, you effectively “sell” the photo (the client owns the copyright). This is called “work-for-hire.” You get a one-time payment when the job is done, but you don’t get any money in the future (except, perhaps, from more work). Some professional wedding and portrait photographers get the client to sign an agreement stipulating that the photographer gets paid for the work and retains copyright, thus allowing them to charge for reprints. They get to have their cake and eat it. Smart.
O.K. With all that under our belt, let’s start selling some photos. The fastest way is with microstock.