The Time Magazine Cover Photo “Ripoff”


When this stock photo appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, the photographer was bouncing off the walls with the thrill of having made the cover of a major magazine.  He posted the cover and his elation on Model Mayhem, a networking site for models and photographers, and received dozens if not hundreds of comments congratulating him on his “victory.”

His sense of accomplishment was short lived.  The problem here is that Time Magazine, who from the reports usually spends in the neighborhood of $3000 for its covers or about $1500 for a stock photo cover, licensed this image from iStock photo for a mere $30.00 – less than the coins in the jar.  Time also failed to read the license well enough when downloading the photo to see the requirement that they give credit to the photographer and iStock photo for the image and failed to do so.

I’m sure the wind in the photographer’s sails vanished when he and his image  became a poster child for the abuses currently occurring in the industry. Should you read this, I applaud you on your success.  Congratulations, it is a significant accomplishment to land the cover of Time magazine.  I also encourage you to now get educated on what you should be making for your work so you don’t get taken advantage of again.  While Time Magazine saved a bundle on their cover, I doubt they have passed this savings along to advertisers!  Call them and see if they will let you take out a full page ad for $30.00 (click here to see Time Mag’s Ad rates).  Why should you be expected to subsidize their business?

Some of the attacks on the photographer have been brutal and he doesn’t deserve them.  Likewise some of the attacks on the professional photographers who pointed out that the photographer screwed himself out of approximately $2970.00 are also brutal.  Truth is, $1500 sounds like a lot for a stock photo of a jar of coins, but I know of a stock photo of a glass of water on a white background that licensed for $10,000.  That is how stock photography is supposed to be licensed, based on the use and the number of people who will be seeing it and the profit it will result in for the clientThat is also how the independent designers who use your work as part of their creations charge for their work! It is an interesting double standard being run here.  Coca Cola paid far more for their logo than Joe’s pizza and there are sound business reasons for that practice.

I can remember the thrill of seeing my first image in a major magazine.  Money seemed quite secondary at that point.  But I quickly learned that I had better learn the business aspects of my art much better than I did at that time and FAST.

Time Magazine certainly cannot be faulted for licensing an image that works for them cheaply when it is made available for that price.  Nor can the photographer be blamed for seeking to make something off his work by licensing it as microstock.  However, the broader point seems to be missed by both sides of this argument.

With the advent of fully automatic digital cameras came a rush of people wanting to be pro photographers.  Most set about accomplishing their goal with no clue as to how the business works, who their clients are (or would be), what thier work is worth to these clients in terms of income, and how to market their work.  It was not long until some clever opportunists noticed the growing available harvest of “photographers” and devised a way to exploit them.  Microstock was born.

As the story goes, microstock began as a free image sharing community in 2000.  When Bruce Livingstone, the owner of the website, discovered how much the hosting fees were costing him started charging fees per image download and throwing some chump change to the photographers.  In that era, the fees charged were appropriate.  One of the top photographers back then that was inspiring the crowd had a portfolio online with thousands of pictures of coins, matchbooks, can openers and other household objects shot on white paper.

A few professional photographers entered the arena.  Back then there were only a couple hundred thousand images online.  Theirs stood out and met the needs of the market and they profited handsomely.  They were held up as examples and the increasing quality of the image libraries led microstock to be promoting itself to professional designers, ad agencies etc.  Slogans evolved from “turn your hard drive into cash” indicating the quality of the work produced in the early days to “The designers dirty little secret” indicating the shame a designer would face should his client discover where the images came from.

More and more beginning photographers saw it as a way to break into the industry and earn some money, hopefully enough to buy some of the equipment they needed to expand their business, or possibly make a full time living as a microstock photographer.  Almost all were sorely disappointed.  While the image libraries started growing a breakneck paces, there are still to date only about 10 or 20 photographers who are making enough to consider it a livable income out of an advertised 144,000 photographers contributing to microstock… and at least 2 of the top earning photographers have discovered that with the image libraries at over 7 million images and growing at the rate of 100,000 images a week that despite uploading in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 new images each month at the fantastic cost it takes to produce them (models, props, equipment, wardrobe, etc all has to be paid for), their “royalties” were beginning to fall.

No one could care less about this than the microstock industry itself.  Bruce Livingstone, the man who started it all, sold iStock photo  for a cool $50 million to Getty images who now runs it with an iron fist, demanding only professional quality images for peanuts (though their libraries are still littered with junk) and rapidly squelching anyone who might have the nerve to speak out against the injustices occurring.  Getty has continued to snap up microstock agencies and it has also had the unfortunate consequence of pulling licensing fees at Getty down toward the microstock rates.

The oddest thing about microstock is how the very lack of license fees equal to what it costs to produce the work fuel the growth.  Microstock now only markets to professionals in the industry.  As the more traditional stock agencies are folding up or photographers are discovering their income from these are reaching bottom, they unwillingly turn to microstock… often under assumed names.  It isn’t good for business to have the person you are charging professional rates for an assignment know your are licensing images elsewhere for less than a dollar.  This of course, as I mentioned above, is cutting into the income of the pros who got into it first and now they are looking for a way out.

The newbies getting into it are rapidly discovering that at rates of 20 cents per download paid to them that the the images uploaded into a body of 7 million existing images with 100,000 new images added each week, they cannot possibly earn enough to do more than dig a financial hole while trying to “make it”.  They see the injustice and complain in the forums where they are met with an army of shills who tell them “you just need to shoot better quality work” and so they expend more money and dig the hole deeper.  Then some get the bright idea to make up the difference through referral commissions.  This amounts to about 2 or 3 cents made from the images the photographers they refer sell.  This obviously will take a LOT of “sales” to make any difference, so they start blogs promoting the financial windfalls waiting for those who sell microstock and put up referral links; post ads on craigs list, refer photographers through networking sites and send out spam.  Instead of learning the value of their work and demanding to receive it, they encourage others to make the same mistake so they can profit.  They have just sold their soul.

As it emerged, microstock posed no threat to the industry.  The image quality was similar to the price asked for them.  Unfortunately, as more photographers joined, a certain percentage of the images by law of averages were quite good and their image inspectors simply started rejecting the rest.  As a result the quality of the image libraries is increasing, but other than small cost of living increases that do not keep up with costs, the prices charged for the work have remained at the level charged back in the days of photos of matchbooks and pet kittens.  This is hardly fair to photographers whether they are licensing through microstock or not.

The destructive practices of microstock are rampant.  Anything to get and license more images all destructive to the industry in which they have eroded so badly.  No loyalty at all to the people who are providing its lifeblood.  For example, iStock worked a deal with Microsoft to license images for $20 each.  Microsoft then made those images available FREE to all who bought their software.  These images are now available to millions of people free, at the expense of the photographers who produced them.  Try buying a copy of Windows Vista and then giving copies of it away to your clients free and see what Microsoft does to you (note that Microsoft uses a rights managed approach to licensing its software and polices abuses with an iron fist).  I’m always amazed when I see large organizations so concerned with protecting their own copyrights so eager to abuse those of others.  And while many photographers were patting themselves on the back for making $20 on an image instead of the usual dollar, Microsoft was laughing at how easy it was to screw photographers and profit from their ignorance.  The photographers who took advantage of this “deal” were played as fools because they failed to take the time to learn what their images are worth.  Rather than lining up at the queue and shouting “pick me, pick me” they should have been demanding of iStock photo that Microsoft pay rates commensurate with the intended use, which would have been thousands of dollars per licensed image.  Don’t think Microsoft didn’t know that!  They aren’t exactly known for fair play.

Other abuses of microstock include taking the best selling work of their top contributors and encouraging other photographers to copy it, licensing images in such volume that it becomes impossible to track whether an image was legitimately licensed or not or if the client paid the slightly higher fees required for extensive use of the image.  Kiss your copyright protection goodbye.  It also cannot monitor who is licensing the images and what they are used for.  Hence, it is frequently found that images in which the model may be in swimwear or shirtless, end up as advertisements for porn sites, adult modeling agencies, and adult products, as well as endorsement for political causes, alternative lifestyles and questionable products and services.  These uses harm the model, photographer and legitimate clients alike. Again, the volume of images licensed is so great that the microstock agenices are not able to determine if the images were even licensed through them, let alone take legal action.  And if it is, how much work do you think attorneys and the courts are going to go to in recovering the lost income from an image being offered to the world for as little as 14 cents on some microstock sites?

This also works against the clients who license the images.  The art director of a magazine in Denver told me the story of another magazine who as the issue came off the press found the image they licensed through microstock on the cover was also on a billboard advertising a rather objectionable product.  The entire issue had to be reprinted.  The owner of a modeling agency in Denver told me of a model who lost a shoot with Revlon.  After she was selected for the job, one of the people from the crew recognized her from one of her photos used to market an adult product.  She was not nude in the photo, merely in a sexy pose so typical of our designer ads. Revlon could not afford the negative implications and removed her from the shoot.  She had saved money on her portfolio shoot buy trading with the photographer who then sold the images as microstock.  In the end, she lost 5 times the amount she “saved” had she paid to have her portfolio professionally shot and kept the images away from microstock. I also noticed about 2 months ago at the magazine rack that three of the news magazines and one of our local magazines were running similar microstock images of a rolled up wad of cash tied in a bow.   Nothing like distinguishing yourself from the competition!  I’m sure there were some rather red faces in the board room the next day.

There are some positive aspects to microstock.  It is an easy way to get images to the public.  This is where the traditional stock agencies failed by holding to old traditions from the film days of accepting only photographers with thousands of images ready to license, submitted by snail mail, and failing to use the internet to market images until after microstock had already significantly eroded their market share.  This is where microstock saw and seized the opportunity.  It can also be a valuable learning ground for emerging photographers to begin learning professional standards.  Though the “professional standards” of microstock are considerably different from that of the industry as a whole.  It was ONCE a way for beginning photographers to earn some money from their work.  Those days are gone however, even the pros on board are finding they have to work harder each week just to earn the same level of income they did in the previous month.

Years ago I heard a quote: “Competition is the trick of the weak to fetter the strong.”  I didn’t understand it until the advent of Microstock.  Microstock has evolved from being a golden opportunity for amateur photographers to becoming a powerful parasite, a deadly cancer, destroying the very life of the industry from which it feeds.  As it has raised the bar on quality and gone after a professional market, it has held pricing levels to the low levels charged in the amateur days and has completely eroded the pricing structure needed to sustain the industry.  This is even harming the microstock agencies.  One when raised the licensing fees a few pennies to clients also cut the royalties paid to the photographers significantly.  Were it charging enough, this pay cut would not have been necessary.  Microstock is typically paying photographers 20 to 30 percent of the peanuts for which the images are licensed while the more traditional agencies once paid more than twice that percentage and licensed the images at fair prices.  I suspect they see this, but today each agency fears demanding professional prices for fear their competitors will continue to license images for pennies and continue the race to the bottom for fees.  Most of these are now continually encouraging photographers to make their work available free.  I fail to see the distinction.  When one is boasting images licenses for a mere 14 cents, it is essentially the same as free.  14 cents won’t even by a stick of “penny” candy today.  Clearly, if this trend they have created continues unchecked, the monster, the cancer, they have created will eventually consume the agencies who have created it.

Microstock can’t be blamed for this.  That responsibility lies on the shoulders of us, the photographers, who either failed to educate ourselves on the business aspects of the industry we hoped to enter, and on the established photographers who have failed to lend more of a hand and help educate more of those who are seeking to find their way in a rather confusing industry.

Microstock is here to stay.  However, just as some of the larger corporations (albiet it often forced by social pressures and legislation) are seeing the need to protect the environment and be “good neighbors” microstock needs to cease its more parasitic practices and begin contributing to the health of the industry in which it lives instead of destroying it.  There is nothing wrong with licensing images to blogs and producers of small newsletters, low circulation brochures etc. for low fees – under the original rights managed system such users paid far less to license images – but when billboards are graced with microstock images, full page magazine ads where the ad rates are over $100,000 per page are using microstock images and giant multi billion dollar corporations are snapping up images for peanuts to give away free to their clients as an incentive to buy their products, a crime is being committed… one the industry cannot long sustain and produce quality work.

I know that by now many of you have your blood boiling and are ready to launch an attack.  But before you attack me spend a moment to educate yourself on the business in which you hope to earn a living.  Do you know how much your clients are making off your images?  It would shock you.  Do you know what they paid for the ad space your image ran in?  Do you know what they would have paid for your image on the cover had microstock not given it away?  If you don’t really know these answers, then spend a few bucks to get a copy of FotoBiz and learn the industry averages, specific rates being charged by and paid by major magazines, business clients and what you should make for different uses of you images.  It will take you a while to recover from the shock of how badly you have been underpaid.  Do you completely understand the value of your copyrights and the reasons you need to protect them?  Do you know why some photographers can charge what they do and why their clients are so willing to pay it?  If not, spend some time on the Editorial Photographers website.   In particular read the War on Photography and The Value of Photography.  Do you know how much it really costs you to do business and produce your images?   You will also find very enlightening information on all aspects of the business, including stock photo pricing.  Then instead of attacking those who are working to protect your earning power, as well as their own,  start demanding what you are worth and educating others to do the same.  No one can be faulted for chasing their dreams.  What joy is there in life without them?  Just don’t allow some to turn your dream into a nightmare of poverty and hard work by failing to educate yourself on the industry in which you hope to thrive.

This is not an attack on anyone.  It is a snapshot of a faction of our industry and the need to force it to become more responsible before it is too late. The photographer who shot the Time Magazine cover apparently runs a furniture store.  Were someone to find people who loved making furniture so badly they would do it for nothing but the hope of one day making it big stuffing cushions, it would put him out of business.  And in time the competitor himself would be out of business when he learned that selling sofas for thirty bucks (or a buck as in the case of most microstock images) did not continue to bring in enough money to pay the rent once everyone had rushed in to get their new dollar sofa and had no room for a second one. Don’t let the love of what you do become your Archillis heel.

Microstock will abuse the rights of photographers as long as we permit it.  Change comes slow, but after reading this I hope a few will actually do the reasearch and perhaps suggest to the agencies that they are not charging enough for the work, urge higher fees for high profile uses of the images, and suggest they refrain from making images available to those who then redistribute them free.  That would be a good start.  The clients licensing microstock can as easily afford $40, $50 or much more as they can from the images they are currently getting for a quarter or so.  If they can’t they have no right being in business.  Many of them can afford thousands for the images, and one of them referred to above has used the imges to make millions.  I think they could have paid more without going broke…. and they gladly would have had we demanded they do so.  And to your friends entering the business, you might want to suggest they read the references, look at the numbers in terms on microstock images on line, new images added each week and pay per license (combined with how the user can keep reusing the image once downloaded) above before deciding that microstock is the route to riches as a photographer.  The numbers are certainly against it.

I fault no one for selling microstock.  I do fault those who do not at least learn what their work is worth and demand improvement and fair licensing fees from the industry.  As microstock is not likely to reform itself, I  hope they educate themselves on the markets and value of their work and find more viable ways of earning a living as a photographer.  And for those who attack anyone who suggests photographers should be treated as professionals, please, please, go get a job as a garbage collector.  It’s just too difficult to understand the logic of someone who not only holds himself back but insists the rest of us do not rise above your level.  We can do without your efforts to pull us into the mud with you!

Additional resources for photographers:

2008 Stock Photo Market Crash

Spec Photography Model: Custom Stock Photography Model is Really Just On Spec

How to Buy (license) Photography

Photographers Don’t Work Free

The Value of Photography

The War On Photography II

The Client Vendor Relationship (must watch this video)

The Free Exposure Trap

Some Thoughts About Microstock

Photo Libraries Devalue Photography

63 thoughts on “The Time Magazine Cover Photo “Ripoff”

  1. Pingback: The Time Magazine Cover Photo “Ripoff” | film news

  2. “Mcrostock now only markets to professionals in the industry.”
    assuming that’s macrostock, when did macro agencies ever market to consumers?

    Kind of ironic that so many people feel that time should have paid a lot more for their cover photo considering the subject of cover story.

    • Steve, that is microstock, it was a typo that has since been corrected. I see your point, however, just as time has limited ad space and must demand advertising rates adequate to cover their cost of doing business, they also run a limited amount of cover photos and photographers certainly cannot expect to make a living from that at $30 per cover and must hold their prices if they expect to stay in business.

      The cover photo is one of the key reasons someone picks up a magazine. That is worth more than $30 when it has so much to do with supporting the circulation that drives their ad sales.

  3. Thank you for exposing this. I sell microstock and feel we are treated as slaves, or worse and find whenever anyone speaks out against the abuses, they are attacked. Thanks for speaking out.

  4. I read an interesting comment on another blog with a similar thought pattern from a photographer who said Microstock was created by a group of photographers seeking to get revenge against the pro photographers and the industry in general for refusing to accept their work and they started the community that later became iStock as a way of getting even by making images available free. The commenter was actually gloating about the damage they have done to the industry.

    This mentality is about the only thing that explains the attacks that arise when one suggests microstock needs to raise its prices. It could have no other motive than destruction.

    To those of you who feel that way, congratulations. You have done a good job at destroying the livelihood of others who simply worked a bit harder than you. It must feel good to look at yourself each day in the mirror and think of your accomplishments.

    • That would explain it Scott. I’ve never seen anything as bizarre as the number of people selling microstock who are defending their right to get screwed.

  5. Did you know Time sells reprints of the cover for $15.00 each? 2 sales pays for the cover and the photographer probably had to buy a copy of Time to get his tearsheet. Amazing how we let our egos blind us!

  6. Thanks so much for the post, it truly is an eye opener!

    As professional photographers we’re all looking to better our lives, be it economically as well as creatively and micro-stock is like a mirage in the desert that lures you in only to find yourself immersed in sand.

    All the best!


    • One of the best analogies I have seen on microstock. I am reminded of the lyrics from a song out of the seventies that I have often thought of when I see some of the more abusive games in this industry.

      “And the man in the suit just bought a new car on the profit he made on your dreams” Lou Reed

      That is the basic on all the games played in the industry whether it be photographers, actors, writers, musicians. Our ambition, our passion for our work, our very dreams are used against us. It is sad to see so many lured into the sea of desert sand with the false promise that licensing their work for a buck will make them successful photographers.

      I believe microstock can be a very painful lesson to many who enter it believing the promises, killing themselves a year or two and finding they have not earned enough to replace the camera that is now worn out from having shot thousands of photos each week in their effort to arrive no where. Once the dream has become a bitter lesson, it is really too late for most.

  7. Wow, what an amazing, insightful post. As somebody who licenses RM travel stock photography I am just totally bewildered as to why anybody would want to sell their work so cheaply? Micro prices for micro uses I can understand but tiny prices for major usage makes no business sense to me whatsoever. Is it too late for the world to go back to slide film? 🙂

  8. Ha ha. The Designer’s Dirty Little Secret. What an appropriate slogan for microstock. I wonder how many designers are actually telling their clients how little they paid for the photos. Betting they pocket the difference is all.

    • Just read a comment on another blog where a designer said he licenses images from iStock, then charges his clients $500 per image. He said they know what the images are worth to them in terms of business and he simply pockets the difference.

  9. …and the advent of blogging has made a dent in the market for professional writing. were you going to advocate for the limitation of blogging to prevent further devaluation of $/word rates of professional writers?

    • Yes, it has, as the internet has devalued most everything. Some of this is good, some not. And yes, I do plan a post in the near future about how blogging has harmed print. Though this is not because people blog, it is because so many designers and various businesses have discovered how to get the bloggers to do thier marketing for them free and no longer need to take out print advertising. It is a situation that needs to be looked at. The problem is not that a new technology has changed how people get their information, it is that the internet has failed to generate the income necessary for it to pay for the content it depends on (photos, news stories etc). Unless we can also get the mortgage companies, auto manufactures, farmers, clothing designers/manufactures, doctors lawyers etc to also begin providing free service, the internet will need to evolve in its ability to produce income for those it depends to provide its content.

    • I find it strange when others seem to take pleasure in watching the earning power of others eroded. I’ve seen the same happen to musicians and watched the gloats of the sick and twisted when it did, and the same again as the IT and white collar jobs moved overseas to find cheap labor and so many dismissed it as “they were overpaid anyway”. I hope you are happy. Hundreds of thousands of college educated professionals are no longer “overpaid” and their jobs are being done for pennies on the dollar overseas… but because they can no longer afford to consume the goods and services produced by others, the nation is now in the worst recession since the great depression. Why don’t we just finish the job and demand EVERYONE work for free and let the “government” take care of us all, ha ha.

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  13. In the spirit of the article, Theresa Kirkpactric’s comment is equally important. Most people fail to understand how each part of the economy is linked to the other parts. To destroy one is to start a domino effect on the whole.

    I think this article needs to be distilled a bit and then find a more prominent location for more exposure.

  14. Pingback: Photo Frugality On the Web: Free! (Almost) | Traveling the Journey of Light | Photoblog

  15. That’s an excellent analysis of microstock and the wider impact it has and continues to have on the business of photography. It expands on the sentiments I expressed when I posted about this subject here with a lot more background and thought.

    Well done Mark!

  16. The problem is not microstock. The problem is a simple matter of supply and demand.

    With the inevitable creation of online databases of stock images, the supply of stock images readily available to license has gone up (and continues to go up) at a tremendous rate as new images are added daily in addition to old images – those already in the database and those that photographers have culled from their prior images (older digital images, and scanned film images). Obviously the demand has not gone up at the same rate! The basic laws of economics in a free market say the price falls when the supply goes up. Stock prices would have fallen even if there weren’t microstock agencies – all it takes is a new company to come in and compete with the existing online stock agencies and charge just a little bit less to get buyers. And then the existing agencies (e.g. Getty) get into the game by lowering rates, creating bundled rates packages for major purchasers that result in much lower image prices (ask me how I know) than would have been charged if the images were individually licensed using the traditional licensing formulas, etc. It doesn’t matter how you market your images – if they aren’t unique then they aren’t “worth a lot of money” to the buyer, to ANY buyer – Time Inc or Betty Sue’s Bait Shop website – it doesn’t matter. The larger the database of potential images, the less likely you have one that is unique, and therefore the less likely it’s worth very much to the buyer. If you want 1000s for the image, the buyer can just go pick the next similar image for 10s instead. Go to iStock and see how many photos there are of jars of coins. Pick ANY subject and see if you can’t find dozens of suitable images on numerous microstock websites. Or even available to use for free (look for Creative Commons licenses) on sites like

    This genie is not going back in the bottle. Whining about the changing market and increasing supply of stock images is not going to change it. Stock photo prices are going to continue to fall, and here’s why.

    In the 1980s there were people who made a good living as professional typists. Authors gave them hand written pages and the typists produced professional typed reports, papers, book drafts, etc. With the advent of personal computers this field disappeared. Writers typed their own work. Was it as good as the work produced by professional typists? No! A professional typist would make minor edits while typing – correct spelling, grammar, etc. and knew more about properly formatting the printed page. But it was “good enough” to type one’s own work into a computer, and the “better” quality obtained by using a professional typist was not worth the cost.

    Photographers are faced with a similar dilemma today. Image buyers find the photos in microstock to be “good enough” and most aren’t willing to pay a huge multiplier more (1000s instead of 10s or 1s or .1s) for a “better” image. This is changing the face of photography. The change is here to stay.

    Instead of writing another futile rant on microstock, how about writing about how photographers need to produce truly unique images if they want to be paid 1000s instead of 10s for their work?

    • I always wonder what the vested interest is of one who would post what you just did. There is obviously some financial motivation on your part for wanting to suppress image prices and photographer compensation.

      Shills on the microstock forums are quite fond of telling anyone who comments that licensing fees don’t support the cost of production only need to produce higher quality work. Nice game as long as you can get away with it. But higher quality work costs more to produce. There is no reason photographers should be expected to produce it at microstock prices.

      That is the key point of my expose and you seem to have missed it. Just like those who use our images, we have operating costs. We need to make enough to support the cost of producing the images others profit from. I would rather stay in the Hilton, but somehow I cannot get them to let me have the room for Motel Six prices.

      This isn’t about supply and demand. There are hundreds of thousands of Cadillacs, Audis, BMWs etc on the road. There is no shortage of these luxury vehicles. However their pricing is held at a level that will sustain the cost of production. Microstock is a parasitic industry that discovered a way to short circuit the financial realities of the industry by feeding on the dreams of those who hoped to become professional photographers. It gave the vast majority only disappointment and heartbreak.

      Please re-read my post. You have failed to see the situation. Microstock and image consumers cannot demand high quality and unique images while licensing them at fees that reduce them to a commodity such as toy blocks rolling down an assembly line where each item produced is the same. The economics don’t work and the game is hurting both the photographers who produce images and the clients who use them. Try to get something for nothing long enough and that is exactly what you will get.

      It obviously benefits YOU in some way to see photographers subsidizing your business… whether that be as the owner or shill for a microstock agency, an image consumer who believes you should get something for nothing, or merely one of the wackos I see who would rather pull others down to their level instead of raising their own station in life. This is fine. I have no problem with that, as long as you, yourself, are willing to allow your services to be had for a couple of bucks and get a day job to subsidize the cost of doing business for your clients. I wait for your next post telling me you have done just that… for that is exactly what you seem to expect photographers to do for yours.

      • I wouldn’t sweat what Taabitha said too much Mark. Her name is familiar as is her comment. I think it is iStock where I have seen it but she is a mod or image inspector at one of the microstock agencies and her messages in the forums are always the same “Shut up and produce higher quality work for lower prices.”

        Same to you Taabitha. Same to you.

  17. What I have never been able to understand is why when image licincing was starting at over $50 at most royalty free stock photo agencies, and going up from there, microstock had to pull it down to less than a dollar. That’s insane.

  18. Thank You! I have licensed microstock since 1995. Even then it seemed like a rip off and earnings barely covered the cost of production, no matter how cheaply it was done. As time has gone on I now find I work ten times as hard for half the income. It just isn’t worth it, but it has so badly eroded other markets I sometimes find I have little or no choice. It is better to “lose less” than not work at all. I’m not alone in this. I noticed a thread over at iStock recently where contributors were expressing the same sentiment, more work, demand for higher quality images, less money. It wasn’t enough to begin with.

    In the early days when there were only 200,000 images in the databases, a beginning photographer had the chance to grow and perhaps make a good income. With over 7 million images and 100,000 new images accepted each week, there is not much chance of making anything at it now. Each image submitted just digs the financial hole deeper.

    Microstock is like a rapidly growing deadly fungus disguised as a vital nutrient. It preys on the ambitions of those wanting to enter photography with false promises. Forgive the anonymous comment. I’ve seen microstock be rather punitive toward those who speak out against it.

  19. Being a succsessful metal sculptor/filmaker in Denver for over 30 yrs in Denver im seeing the whole “let us benefit off of your long yrs. of work labors ” and will give you a
    credit or some food thing going on all over. This is now the new buisness model Im finding to be the standard. Look at what youtube started out as and now all it has become is the NEW television, complete with all kinds of external advertising stimuli for the mindless, constant rights agreements on their behalf, not yours, and more clogging of their” internal space atmosphere” with floating objects of digitized space junk. In the end you have to say am I going to let this kill my creative drive or do I whore my self out for a down payment on a hotdog. Tough times out there for the creativley driven, havent figured out where to go next except to say Id like to weld some of these so called creative profiteers all into in a huge big cage and ship them to Nigeria for a few years of lessons on humility!!!!!!!!!! As for Rupert Murdoch and Co. there isnt a cage big enough!
    Great post Scott, thanks…….

  20. Pingback: A Dangerous New Marketing Paradigm… Blogs, Magazines, Fashion Designers, Agencies and Fools « Mark Stout Photography – Photoshoot News & Models

  21. Economic theory suggests that in a market which has unlimited supply – in other words perpetually growing global stock image libraries – pricing will approach marginal costs. Marginal costs of course do not take into account photographer equipment and overheads or a good enough salary to make a living. In essence, microstock pricing is pricing based on marginal cost.

    Again, in economic theory, the way to get out of this is to provide a scarce product that cannot be easily replicated. I don’t even think that great creativity can help you be a scarce commodity in the stock industry anymore – and it will only get harder. Stock photography is doomed – success for most photographers will result from supplying the market with scarce goods, such as assignment work related to events and situations that cannot be replicated by anyone else or which demand exclusivity, and I recommend this kind of thinking for budding photographers. A classic example is wedding photography – I would hate to do it, but people recognise the value of capturing their unique event. That unique event is scarce and can therefore command more money. There are plenty of other types of photography where this idea of scarcity applies so there is still hope for photographers – it’s just not in stock!

  22. I’ve been looking into all this with a little more vigour recently since I’m a photographer who works mainly on commissions (and those are falling because of microstock and the recession).

    To me, the maths doesn’t add up for the client particularly well. If a designer buys an image for a client web site, they might easily pay something like $10 per image if they’re not a high-volume customer. The iStockphoto T&Cs stipulate that the image can only be used in one media for one client, so let’s say a web page use. The client isn’t allowed to use that image for any other media (printed or electronic). The image is generic, non-exclusive and not specifically tailored to the client.

    When I do a day’s commissioned work, producing bespoke, unique and exclusive imagery for the client, it tends to work out at around £45 per image (including all costs). Even this can vary, but I’m using general figures here to illustrate the point. My client is then licensed to use that image for ALL their uses (3rd-parties excluded of course). So if they use one of the images for web, e-newsletter, brochure, annual report, whatever they can think of really (I tend to exclude advertising use unless agreed and built into the fees) the cost of the individual images tumbles to less than the cost of a microstock image.

    The problem I’m having is getting designers to realise this and convincing them that they should be selling this concept to their clients. Wherever possible I approach clients direct of course, but designers are often the first point of contact with a creative professional that a client will have.

    Whatever the microstock apologists say, microstock is also eroding the creative commissioned market because it’s a great way for lazy or unimaginative web and graphic designers to fill their designs with “cheap” eyecandy.

    Let’s not also forget the environmental impact of tens of millions of image files sitting on servers which have to run 24/7, many of which will never even be downloaded or used. Not forgetting the harm of tens of thousands of photographers driving out to shoot pictures which statistically speaking, nobody wants.

    At least when I turn on my engine, I know I’m off to take pictures somebody wants and needs.

    • Clients pay a high price for the cheap microstock images. Despite millions of them, they all tend to look the same. I am stunned at the number of brochures, websites and billboards that look just like every other billboard, website and brochure due to the images selected. This is certainly not a way to get your business noticed. What is the cost in terms of lost business?

      Microstock images also frequently tend to pop up in uses that are quite embarrassing to someone else using the same image. The cost of this cannot be calculated.

      I do think photographers are starting to realize microstock is the fast track to bankruptcy and the better ones are avoiding it… and I think image clients who were once thrilled to have such cheap images available are now starting to realize the risks associated with using them.

  23. Forget Microstock…they want it for free now in exchange for a credit. In the past couple of months I have been approached by 2 magazines, the first wanted to use my photo on their magazine cover in exchange for credit and no financial compensation.

    The second magazines communication I have posted below.

    I am also posting this all over Flickr to try to alert others that thier photography has value and for them not to give it away for free.

    We should all post communications like this and make it well known what companies want our work for free.

    I was recently contacted by Annika Small the Associate Editor of the Popular Dogs Series/Popular Birding Series which is part of BowTie, Inc and was informed that this Corporation with a revenue of $39.1 million CAN’T (wouldn’t) pay for photos.

    Please read our email correspondences below…let’s stick together folks! Don’t give away your photos! They are worth something if a magazine (or any commercial organization) wishes to use or publish them!

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Small, Annika []
    Sent: Thursday, December 17, 2009 6:14 PM
    To: ‘’
    Subject: German Shepherd Puppies
    Hi Kelly,

    My name is Annika and I’m the associate editor of the Popular Dogs Series of magazines (a sister publication of Dog Fancy).

    We’re doing a magazine dedicated solely to German Shepherd Dog puppies, and we’re looking for high-resolution photos of GSDs for the section “Why I Love My German Shepherd Dog Puppy”. I saw your photos on and I was hoping you’d like to submit a couple of your favorites. We can’t pay you, but we will include your name for others who might want to purchase your photos.

    If you have in-focus, high-resolution (300 DPI or higher, or 3-inch by 5-inch) photos of your GSD pup, then we’d like to see them! We prefer color photos of just the dog (no people, please!), either full body or just a cute face!

    Please e-mail your photos to me at

    In the e-mail, please include your full name (first and last), your dog’s name, and the city and state in which you live. If your dog is chosen, we’ll contact you via e-mail in late January to let you know, and you’ll receive a copy of the magazine when it comes out (it’s scheduled to be in stores March 25, 2010). Please also include your mailing address. The deadline to submit is January 11, 2010.

    Thanks! And if you know of other people or communities that might want to submit photos of their German Shepherd puppies, spread the word!

    Annika Small
    Associate Editor
    Popular Dogs Series/Popular Birding Series
    BowTie, Inc.

    Phone: (949) 855-8822 x 3119
    Fax: (949) 855-0654

    P Please consider your environmental responsibility before printing this e-mail.

    From: []
    Sent: Friday, December 18, 2009 10:22 AM
    To: Small, Annika
    Subject: RE: German Shepherd Puppies

    Hello Annika,

    Thank you for the compliment of asking me to submit my photos, but since your organization is commercial, and the photo would be used in a commercial manner, I think that it is only fair that I be paid for my work.

    Since BowTie, Inc., is the world’s largest publisher of pet and animal magazines and websites, with a revenue of $39.1 million, I find it difficult to believe that your corporation “can’t” pay me for use of a photo that I have hours of work in. I find this to be insulting that BowTie, Inc., doesn’t value the work of photographers enough to pay for an image. Without photographs, you wouldn’t have a publication worth purchasing.


    Kelly Peet

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Small, Annika []
    Sent: Friday, December 18, 2009 2:19 PM
    To: ‘’
    Subject: RE: German Shepherd Puppies
    Hi Kelly,

    Sorry if I was unclear. The Gallery is separate from the rest of the magazine. For all of our articles, the photos we use were taken by freelance photographers, who are paid for their work. The Gallery, however, is just an opportunity for nonprofessionals to share photos of their dogs. These people are not paid, as the fun for them is in seeing their dogs in print and getting a free copy of the magazine. I understand that, as a professional photographer, you might not want to participate.

    Annika Small
    Associate Editor
    Popular Dogs Series/Popular Birding Series
    BowTie, Inc.

    Phone: (949) 855-8822 x 3119
    Fax: (949) 855-0654

    P Please consider your environmental responsibility before printing this e-mail.

    —–Original Message—–
    From: []
    Sent: Friday, December 18, 2009 3:25 PM
    To: Small, Annika
    Subject: RE: German Shepherd Puppies
    Hello Annika,

    Thank you for clearing that up, but to be honest I still don’t see the difference. Your publication is asking for photographers to donate their work for free, and then the publication is sold to readers and your company profits.

    Obviously from the photo requirements listed below, I’m assuming that the photograph will be at the the professional level of quality to be chosen for publication.

    Why not make it even more fun for people who have photographs accepted into the gallery by making it into a photography contest with payments or prizes? Then, not only would they have the excitement of seeing their photo published, but would also have the joy of knowing that their photo has “REAL MONETARY VALUE”. For example, you could offer a Nikon D90 as first prize, maybe a lens as second, etc. If they are submitting photos they will love money, photo equipment, software, and gadgets. Get the best dog photographers in the world to be the judges. This would add to the value of winning the contest! What an honor to have the best dog photographers in the world chose your photo for publication! You could have different categories…puppies, dogs in landscapes, action, etc. Maybe offer virtual classes 1on 1 with the judges for the winner, etc.

    I believe this would also increase your distribution. People would buy it just to see who the latest winner is. You could make the winning photo a centerfold that people could put on the wall, or frame like a poster.

    It would also be important to make it clear that your usage would be a one time event unless additional permission was given by the photographer. I dislike the small print where companies obtain a royalty free license that is perpetual forever, if you know what I mean. That is why I do not enter the majority of photo contests, my copyright is mine, and I don’t want to give anyone a royalty free license to use it forever. I’m sure that other people feel the same way. In fact…if your corporation made it clear that photo usage would be a one time event, unless further permission was given by the photographer, you could brag about how honest and upfront your company and contest is compared to others who almost steal photos through the license grab.

    Those are just my thoughts on the matter, but after doing extensive research in this area, I think there are many others who would agree with me..

    Please contact me if you should wish to use one of my photos for publication, I would be more than happy to discuss licensing with you.


    Kelly Peet

  24. Fantastic post!

    Im getting into photography and had a lot of doubts about microstck. All cleared up now.

    Keep up the good work!

  25. Great article. We’ve been dealing with this issue as well as how to protect your images. A lot of anger from the troops. All they want is to see their images in print….regardless.

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  29. Excellent article.

    Dreamstime and Shutterstock went further to undermine photographers by adding editorial images to their stock. I photographed several large cultural events in India this year and, naively, headed to DT in hope of getting some images out there. I sold a few, perhaps amounting to thirty dollars or so. In the beginning I thought this was great but now I am realising it is simply awful.

    How can the microstock industry even dream that a photographer can travel half way across the world, cover travel expenses, insurance, living costs and obviously not be doing a day job and then get paid 0.30c per image?

    The other interesting element about microstock is the total globalisation of the market from the offset. Since you can upload photos anywhere in the world, photographers in India or Russia, where models, props and most importantly, the photographers living costs are much lower than in the States or Europe. Great for some, not for others, but of no regard for the microstock industry itself.

    Now we have affordable semi or even professional DSRLS, cracked copies of Photoshop and so forth. Microstock is very attractive to amateur photographers such as myself. Yet the more you learn about the industry the more you realise your just damaging your future prospects.

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  31. I’m a beginning photographer, and that’s one thing that’s always put me off about stock photography – that the image can be used again and again. I am actually a painter who bought a good camera so that I could get reference images (mostly landscapes and horses) for painting, but the picture-taking took over.

    Now I’m looking for a way to make money from both photographs and painting/drawing; and as a painter, I wouldn’t want one of my paintings to go everywhere for $30. There is as much thought and talent/ability that goes into the taking of a good photo, in some ways, as there is in doing a drawing. It just takes less time. People will not give you credit, or even respect you for having talent unless you demonstrate it, and treat it like gold.

    I’ve had a lifetime of that – and I find that it’s worse with photographs than it is with paintings. People really take photographs for granted. I’ve given good photos away, and sometimes never even get a thank you. I’m not doing that any more – photos are so ubiquitous now, that good photos aren’t recognized. Nobody sees that your mind chooses that composition, that split second of light, that movement; and that they couldn’t do it themselves. As with drawings – they don’t see the difference between the ability to sit and draw from life, and a computer generated image. So stand by your work, and expect proper payment for it.

  32. Lucky for me I have some costing and accounting experience. Having signed up to microstock agencies in my early stupidity I sat back and work the numbers.

    I’d be better off selling the cameras and getting a job in a burger bar.

    It’s ridculous the lack of value photographers put on their work.

    I’m selling prints and exhibiting instead you make more money that way.

  33. Thank you for posting this. I just closed my account with a microstock agency, as many of my photographs were approved, and many, almost identical to the approved photographs were denied. It seems as though it is a hit or miss with the reviewer of the day at each agency. I also do not like the idea of working my ass off, taking what I feel are excellent shots and then either getting no recognition or no money for my time and effort. Photography is not easy. It is a passion of mine and in the click of a mouse, the reviewer of the stock agency can make or break you. I think it would be best if photographers sell their creations at local street fairs, etc. Why should we allow huge companies to profit off of our hard work and passion?

  34. The average Joe on the street has no idea how to price up a photograph.

    Give them a DSLR and if some one wants a print they are overjoyed. Ask them how much it’s a different matter.

    I cost up everything, and microstock is just economic nonsense for the photographer (not for the agency).

    I also despise the fact that these agencies started in the early 2000’s on a free/sharing of images basis but now they make shed loads of cash on basically the same business model they started with but have the cheek to pay pennies and sell for big bucks.

    I’ll sell prints and I made more money that way. To be honest though I don’t think I’ll give up the day job.

  35. Excellent, well-researched article and totally true.

    Micro-stock agencies are only able to exist because photographers are willing to sell good photography for less than the price of a chocolate bar.

    It’s often not the case that you get what you pay for.

    Stock photography is already pretty saturated and the main issue is the capability to find the right photo.

    Better to focus on the obscure and the transient events then sell at a sensible price.

    Ben @

  36. Microstock has a pretty ingenius scam going on, it’s sickening. I signed up for Shutterstock about six years ago, and in that time I have earned a whopping 143 dollars, nearly 60 of which I will never see because it would take me another two years of leaving my images available to be sold by these thieves to reach to minimum payment threshold again.

    Granted, I never put a large number of images online. God knows I tried, but I soon realized how fruitless my effort were going to be. uploading images to Micrstock is time consuming to the extreme. You can waste hours tagging images one by one, only to have most of them rejected for the most dubious of reasons.

    And I guess that’s yetr another layer to the scam, not only do they not pay you for your images, but they make you do all of the work that they, as thea agent, should be doing.

    It’s obscene, really, and compeltely indefensible, and I regret ever falling for the lie.

  37. I just happened to find this page by accident, but I wonder if the photographer can go after Time for proper payment, since it sounds like the original usage did not fulfill the license requirements.

  38. Pingback: Are Free Photos Becoming the Norm? | FrozenEvent

  39. This is probably one of the best written articles I’ve ever seen on this topic– oh, so true! It should be required reading for anyone thinking of going into microstock, because truer words of wisdom have seldom been written.

    Now I noticed that some people commented that microstock was a nefarious plan to get back at pros. Actually, I don’t think this is exactly what happened. What happened was that the pros shot themselves in the foot, and all because of a sense of pride.

    You see, I remember when microstock first got underway (I joined SS in ’05). Back then it was a place for amateurs and entry level photogs to get their foot in the door and gain some confidence before going pro.

    Pros openly scorned it. Then– whether out of a sense of pride or envy– they suddenly changed their tune when they saw how much buzz and revenue microstock with its amateur submitters was generating. So they started strong-arming their way into microstock, submitting their best shots and marking their territory in the forums like bullies at a playground, snidely putting down amateurs and pretty much announcing that the amateurs could officially pack their bags and leave now that the pros had arrived.

    One of the best examples of this “hostile takeover” happened at Shutterstock. Over at the forums, a wolfpack– headed by the lead wolf himself, Laurin Rinder (aka “rinder99”)– basically spent years snidely and belligerently tearing down anyone who they perceived as “amateurs” with glee.

    It was he and his clan who embodied the snide “shut-up-and-shoot-better” response. The point of that response was for the high and mighty pros to put amateurs “in their place” whenever they had the “temerity” to demand better treatment and pay. It was shorthand for, “How dare you, you worm of an amateur, complain about having your images rejected by microstock. You should be privileged to have even been accepted into microstock in the first place. Until you start shooting like us pros, STFU.”

    At any rate, these “pros” were so high off the fumes of belittling and chasing off amateurs from microstock, they didn’t seem to notice or even care that their glossy, Madison Avenue quality, studio-shot images were getting paid the same rates as the cheesy fractals and point and shoot snapshots that had previously dominated the site. If they had been smart, what they would’ve done was submit their slightly above average shots, then hold out until SS raised its rates to a reasonable amount. But nope, these idiots were so determined to beat the amateurs that they submitted everything from National Geographic-level safari shots to high fashion images that you’d find in Vogue or Elle. And all so they could get a measly 25-38 cents per download, the occasional EL, and the bragging rights of making $$$ a month or year.

    This is why microstock is in the shape that it’s in currently. When you have “pros” willing to submit their best shots for pennies, there’s no reason for a microstock agency to start paying anyone dollars. Seeing how it’s all panned out, I can only laugh with derision at the hand-wringing over situations like this, where someone’s image has ended up on a famous magazine cover with nothing to show for it except a $25 commission and a nonexistent credit. Hey, you wanted to dominate microstock. Well, there ya go. To the victory go the spoils! Enjoy the pocket change you’ve earned shooting with a top of the line camera + lens, and the money you spent on models and studio equipment! 🙂

    • Thank you for your well thought out comment. A couple of points here. I do not believe professional photographers have every wanted to do anything other than to HELP amateurs learn the game and succeed… if in fact they desire to become pros. Join any professional association and you will see just how true this is.

      Since the writing of this article I have learned more about the birth of microstock. When Livingstone created the free image sharing “community” that became iStock, it wasn’t an accident evolution. He intended to start a stock photo agency all along but realized he could not compete against the existing agencies. So he collected together the hobbyists built the library up and then opened the doors as the first microstock agency. Then he passed it off to Getty images for a cool $50 million and cashed out before the house of cards began to topple.

      As for the pros getting in to squash the amateurs, I disagree. They got in because the full priced and rights manage agencies have been seriously damaged by the flood of cheap photos and found they had little choice. It is sad to see how a faction of our industry has flourished by pulling the rug out from the rest of it.

      Something will change here soon. The agencies themselves are starting to feel the pain of their own race to the bottom and have been addressing it by both raising prices and cutting the already ridiculously low royalties even more! And we are seeing the heavy hitters pulling out. Yuri Arcus for example just launched his own stock photo website and I’m sure will soon be licensing his images exclusively through it. The ripple effect of this I’m sure is already being felt as it was Yuri who led the world to believe millions could be made selling quarter a download stock. He is now saying the business model is not sustainable and he is right.

      Others will soon follow and microstock will either evolve a business model that is fair and profitable to its contributors … or be back to the days of licensing images of pet kittens and matchbooks as it was in the beginning. And even those images are worth more than they are currently charging.

      As for photographers, the best thing any of us can do is team up with a professional organization and work to make conditions favorable for all concerned.

      • Wow, I’m very happy that someone like Yuri Arcus finally wisened up and did the right thing! I hope that others will follow his lead, although judging from the forums at SS, I have a feeling it’ll be a long time before that eventually happens. There is still that “slave mentality” over there, with one half of contributors still seeing microstock as some benevolent charity doing them a tremendous favor and the other half tearing apart anyone who has the gall to “bite the hand that feeds them”. To this day, you can find contributors on the verge of rage/ tears over an image rejection (oh, boo hoo, I’m losing a chance to earn 25 cents, boo hoo!!) and fanboys vociferously screaming at those who’ve unplugged from The Matrix that they need to “shoot better”.


  40. To the commenter and Mark’s reply above, I think the truth about the amateur/pro relationship lies somewhere in the middle.

    I know SOME pro’s were snidey about amateurs and would take every opportunity to put them down, and I do recall reading SOME amateurs’ comments about how pro’s had had it too easy for too long and now was some kind of day of reckoning, little realising there are thousands of us who only ever made a modest living from being professional.

    For my part, I never shot for stock because I always preferred shooting to commission, but the rise of cheap stock has hit the commissioned market hard.

    I was always skeptical about those ‘rock stars’ of the microstock industry who seemed to be doing well by pumping out millions of sterile images because I could see that microstock is a self-consuming animal. The more images are pumped in, the cheaper their commodity price would be. And unless you were willing to scale up your operation to generate many millions of images, you would always find your work lost in the tsunami of others’ work. Simply put, it’s never been a long-term sustainable model for photographers (note the use of long-term).

    However, I think regardless of the amateur/pro relationship (let’s face it, there will always be squabbles and flamewars and alliances made and broken) there is one fact that keeps presenting itself to me as a commissioned photographer. Increasingly I’ve been made aware of and benefitted from the fact that while businesses have learned to enjoy using imagery in their websites and brochures and do understand the importance of communication through pictures, an increasing number are less willing than ever to ruin their productions with cheesy, non-original stock images.

    Slowly, slowly clients are coming to me and requesting I spend time shooting pictures for them, of their business, for exclusive use by their business and they’re willing to pay a reasonable sum for that.

    Stock won’t go away, and calamities like the $25 Time cover and misuses (remember the Greek yogurt fiasco?) will continue forever, but I feel some return to a more sensible balance is under way.

    Finally, I also think amateur and pro micro-stock photographers alike are coming to the realisation that stock is a scam on them (great for some clients though); that their work is being massively under-sold and rarely makes up for the cost of equipment, transport and time and also that the big exposure in a national magazine VERY rarely leads to a great career as a recognised photographer. To illustrate my point, google the name of the photographer who shot the Time magazine cover featured here, then tell me where his career is. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I can find no links other than a lapsed Model Mayhem account.

    • Thank you Tim. Your observation is spot on. And I have seen exactly what you say re some pros and some amateurs and this is the very thing that erodes the industry. Could be that the old divide and conquer rule was used in the formation of microstock in the first place.

      Pros can be expected to be upset to see work worth hundreds or thousands of dollars going for a quarter and the damage done by it. Likewise, I think many of the amateurs (many now pro microstock shooters) felt they could not find a way into the industry.

      As for the microstockers proclaiming that it was a day of reckoning for the pros, it is interesting to see them scream each time microstock royalties are cut… exactly what microstock did to standard stock rates.

      The solution here is for us to reunite again as a group and work toward better conditions that actually support the cost of doing business. None of us are an island and every industry has professional standards. Photography is no different here.

      I also agree that more clients are seeing they cannot afford to associate their brand/product with cheap generic microstock images and are more willing to commission shoots that are unique.

      I do believe the situation will resolve soon. Unworkable business models have a way of eliminating themselves from the picture.

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