Flickr and commercial use of photos

Andy has discussed the subject of requests for use of photos published on flickr before, but I’ve just had cause to consider it further.

This evening I received an email via flickrMail from an employee of Little Airplane Productions Inc. enquiring about the use of unspecified photos of the Chicago River from my flickr photostream. The relevant part of the email is as follows:

“I am interested in using your images of the Chicago River for an animated project I’m currently working on. The project is an educational series for broadcast TV about little animals saving other baby animals. We are looking to use just a portion of the images to complete an original background design. Since we are producing the show for a third party broadcaster, we would need to have the images (non-exclusively) in all forms of media in perpetuity and I am unable to guarantee screen credit. But that means that your shots would be used for TV! We would need them in high resolution (300 dpi at 1480×1040 pixels, at least).”

On first reading, this sounded very exciting. The email included full name and contact details which check out with the company web site. What’s more, the company was founded by a multi-Emmy award winning former writer of the US version of Sesame Street, and it counts Disney and Cartoon Network as clients. The sample video on their site shows that they do a lot of what looks like green screen work over static background images which fits in with the indicated use of my photo(s).

My initial reaction was an altruistic one. It’s educational stuff for kids so why not? What’s more, the photo I suspect they are after is not really anything more than a snapshot. Had they explicitly stated that the production was for non-commercial use, then I’d have immediately replied asking for a few more details but would essentially have no problem in granting permission for use.

After a consultation with some people on a photography forum however, I started to read more into the email. Firstly, the terms indicated seem sensible on first glance (non-exclusive is good) and the issue of perpetuity is probably fair enough (although on reading up it appears common to license for 5-10 years and then the company would have to re-license if it was still in use after that time.) However, there is explicitly no mention of whether the use is commercial, so one has to assume it is based on the fact that they are producing the animation for a 3rd party. Secondly there is the slight tone, through phrases such as “I am unable to guarantee screen credit” and “your shots would be used for TV!”, which starts to give the impression that they are the ones doing me a favour. For sure, correct attribution is one of the most fundamental concerns in the reuse of one’s work.

This then got me thinking about how sites like flickr and the broad boom in the quality and quantity of digital imagery affects the photographic industry. In days gone past I’m sure that such a production company would have to either shoot, commission or buy from stock the images they use. Nowadays it is possible to quickly search sites such as flickr, with its rich tag based facilities, to find such images. By the nature of the site, people on it are interested in displaying their work, so it is a logical step to approach such people with a view to use of their images. They are probably not aware of the market rates and licensing policies commonly in use in the industry. The production company gets a free, or at least cheap, picture. What this ultimately leads to is the erosion of photography as an industry as a dramatic increase in the supply of cheap labour through enthusiastic amateurs leads to less commissions and sales for the true professionals. Of course, there are a variety of economic arguments to be had here around free markets, supply and demand and so on, but I’ll leave those to others as I only got a C at A-Level 😉

This matter also brings into focus (see what I did there?) the issue of the initial license I make my work available under. All my photos are currently All Rights Reserved, though I could for instance select one of the Creative Commons licenses to give a more liberal aspect of reuse to my photos. As long as I stuck to at least
Attribution Non-Commercial, then my work would be protected against unauthorised commercial use. There is an interesting case study available in this area. A company called Schmap produce free online destination guides and they actively search CC licensed photos on flickr for inclusion. They have an open and honest approach and always seek permission from the owner before shortlisting a photo for use. However, they still cause some debate about their practice, mainly based around the argument that their site is supported by advertising and therefore is commercial in nature.

The earlier argument I used about free work devaluing and eroding the role of a professional photographer is also interesting in the context of what we see in the software world with respect to open source. IBM produces a first class, scalable and performing J2EE Application Server, relational database, and so on, however you also have the choice to use any number of (largely) freely licensed open-source alternatives. Naturally there are the traditional arguments of maintenance and support that apply to software but not necessarily to photography, but then again if I asked Joe Bloggs with his DSLR to photograph my wedding in preference to a pro I might be consciously compromising on quality, but what degree of confidence would I have in going back to Joe fifteen years later to get some reprints?

So, to end a longer than indended post, what did I decide to do? Well here’s the email I sent back:

“Thank you for the message. To begin with, can you please indicate which image or images you are interested in using?

I assume that as you mention that this animated show is for a 3rd party broadcaster that it is a commercial venture on the part of Little Airplane? As such, could you give an indication if the production is destined for local, national or international broadcast?

If this is indeed a commercial venture then please also forward a fuller contract for me to consider. As I’m sure you are aware, whilst I do not make a living from photography others certainly do and as such I would not expect to give my work away for free for commercial use.

On receipt of the requested information I can make a proposal to you with regard to a fair market rate for the photograph or photographs you are interested in.

I look forward to your reply.”

9 thoughts on “Flickr and commercial use of photos

  1. That’s a good response. I hope you get a sensible reply. I’ve had a couple of approaches now, and in both cases they went dead after initial conversations, which was a bit disappointing. In the case you link to, in the end I thought “what the heck” and was prepared to sell the shot with rights – it would be a first for me anyway, and I could always take more in the same spot – but I heard nothing further.

    I still haven’t decided what to do with regards to Creative Commons licensing of my shots. I was looking at that for a while, but it hasn’t been top of my list of priorities, so for the moment they remain Al Rights Reserved.

  2. Hi James. Interesting article. Firstly, I’m not personally interested in actively looking to sell photos. Playing with my camera is something I do for fun! I’d imagine that this scoopt initiative comes quite close to breaching the flickr T&C’s on advertising your work for commercial use. What’s more it brings in lots of interesting issues around where the picture was taken and of whom? For instance, I am hoping to go up to London later this week (weather permitting) to get some photos. The whole of South Bank is privately owned, and as such I’d need permission to shoot for commercial purchases. What happens if I later sell commercially a shot I took there? Also, if there’s a person in the shot did I get a release signed at the time? Of the 18,000 or so shots tagged with scoopt on flickr I wonder how many thought about these issues?

  3. My thoughts are pretty much the same as yours – the shots are there on flickr to get comments and some feedback, not as a business venture. But if someone expresses an interest in buying a picture then I’ll consider it.
    Schmap wanted some Netley Abbey pics, and I agreed but I’d certainly agree that they are in a sense exploiting flickr as a free source of stock photos. But I don’t think the photos are an essential part of their commercial project so I don’t see it in such paranoid terms as a lot of people in that flickr discussion.
    If I was particularly concerned about being ripped off then I probably wouldn’t use flickr at all since there’s nothing really stopping anyone who wants to steal photos from doing so no matter what license you use.
    I think the degree of exposure and community contact outweighs the risk.

  4. Good stuff. Never give away your photos! As you say, it will kill the industry if you do!

  5. ‘Of course, there are a variety of economic arguments to be had here around free markets, supply and demand and so on, but I’ll leave those to others as I only got a C at A-Level ;-)’

    Well, I got an A, although supply and demand curves never seemed to teach me much at the time. Nevertheless, I think Flickr could be great for driving down the price of stock photography: There’s got to be a chance for some disintermediation here as well as some folks discovering a new career (photography) that would never have occurred to them before. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an industry popping up based around photo rights sales off Flickr. For all I know, it already has.

  6. Google found me this article after I got approached through flickr for a similar reason, in this case use of a picture of mine as author photo. No cash, but a credit & some books. Wondered how your case was resolved if you don’t mind saying?

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