Why Royalty Free is a Bad Thing

First of all, a definition and a little background; Royalty Free (RF) is a business model for the licensing and sale of material such as graphic art, photographic imagery and music which may be used for profit without paying royalties as the name suggests. This article will deal with photographic imagery, but the principles apply across the board. A one-off payment is made in order that the image in question can be used. The price of the image is usually based on file size and once purchased, the image can be used as many times you like in as many ways as you like with the one caveat that you may not resell the image itself. Photodisc were one of the first suppliers of imagery under the RF model, offering CD ‘collections’ of backgrounds and what we might term ‘clip art’.

Royalty Free – You Get What You Pay For

Sounds like a good deal, surely? Well, as in anything, you get what you pay for. The biggest problem with those early Photodisc collections was that every designer had the same set which meant the same images appeared all over the place. Now, though, the sheer volume of RF imagery available has reduced that risk, but it can and does happen and in some particularly noteworthy cases, with extremely embarrassing results;

In the summer of 2004, Dell and Gateway featured the same model and location (although not the identical shot, but from the same shoot) in their Back-To-School campaigns. Two companies in competition with each other using the ‘same’ image does not impress or convey an image of quality.

The same thing happened with Wanadoo and Cegetel, two French ISPs, who both used the same image as part of their campaigns for new business.

In both of these examples, the imagery has been used by competitors, but the situation could equally be products or services at the opposite ends of the spectrum. In the context of the internet as we know it today, it is far easier to be aware of these faux pas, as we all have greater access to information.

RF imagery is supplied for its broad appeal, and because a controlled vocabulary list is used to keyword the images, they turn up on the same searches time after time. RF is high volume and fast turnaround and that leads in turn, to an undermining of the value and worth of creative original photography. Because of the high volume nature of RF, often critical paperwork such as property and model-release is not sought and can leave the client with a far bigger bill afterwards.

The Rights Managed (RM) Model

Obviously, the best solution every time would be to commission original photography, but the realities of budgetary constraints and timescale may rule this out as an option. However, Rights Managed (RM) imagery offers a middle ground whereby the imagery is licensed on the basis of ‘use’ rather than ‘unit’.

Licensing this way offers a much better deal for both buyer and photographer and guarantees a level of integrity for the client which is missing in RF. The usage of the imagery can be defined exactly, and it could be that the cost is lower than that of RF.

In conclusion, RF offers the client no protection or originality and is sold much like any other commodity – that is, on the basis of ‘unit’.

RM on the other hand, protects both the client’s and the photographer’s interests and calculates the fee on the basis of ‘use’. Furthermore – and in complete contrast to RF – the fees for RM licencing are often negotiable. It can be the case that an RM licence fee is the SAME as an RF fee, AND you – the client – get something that is specific for your use with greater exclusivity.

Nick Dunmur, June 2007