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