The stock market

Once upon a time there were picture libraries. Operating a bit like one man and his dog, these archives usually consisted of a filing cabinet stocked with the specialist work of one photographer and were generally located in the individual’s living room.

As images became increasingly more valuable as a commodity, and more photographers caught on to the idea of licensing their images, the filing cabinet evolved and moved out of the domestic domain to join other photographers in what we now know as the photolibrary.

Picture libraries and photographic agencies are essentially the same beast – except the precise definition is somewhat hazy. Agencies were originally perceived as a press collection, while libraries had a more commercial bias. Where agency images were thought of in terms of a one-off or daily use, picture library material was believed to have more long-term relevance in the marketplace.

Photolibraries are constantly looking for creative talents to sign on to their books, whether they are artists, illustrators, photographers or cinematographers. Although photographers are keen to be represented by a library and like to choose the libraries they feel are appropriate to their style and philosophy, the libraries themselves tend to operate a gentleman’s agreement system where they don’t poach another agencies’ photographers.

Generally, the photographers sign a straight representation deal which gives the library exclusive rights over some of the photographer’s work over an agreed period of time. Normally, a photographer gets a fixed percentage whenever the library sells one of their images.

Five years is the norm for an exclusive contract between photographer and library; as most archives realise that it generally takes 18 months just to get the products distributed. After approximately two-and-a-half years, a library will know if the images have real commercial value and if things are going as planned. This is the point at which the library and photographer will assess their future together and determine whether the photographer’s style should evolve to become more marketable.

Contracts between photographer and library tend to be tailored to the individual; although libraries largely have the pick of the photographer’s work and first refusal on images. The photographer is then free to offer these rejected images to other people, ultimately leaving the library with the best work.

The major issue currently affecting photolibraries is the quest for better product quality, developing more efficient means of service, and monitoring online opportunities.

A few of the larger and international libraries have established film footage archives featuring the work of globally active cinematographers, who are selected in much the same way as photographers. Films chosen range from classic films, archive broadcast material, popular TV series and nature. But all have to be appropriate to the needs of ad agencies, corporate film-makers and broadcasters.

Thanks to the resurgence of the British film industry, work, for those libraries which have taken the plunge, has steadily grown. However, according to those libraries already involved in archive footage, it is unlikely that many other UK photolibraries will make in-roads into the film market because of the considerable financial investment required.

A further topic that needs to be addressed by photolibraries is the requirements of the low-end sector of the market. This requirement has essentially been driven by the growth of multimedia and its unique design demands; and is another distribution issue.

Designers and art directors in this sector basically require a multitude of royalty-free and low-cost images from photographers that have copyright clearance for the Net. Some libraries are catering for this demand by putting out low-cost imagery on disc, for a one-off fee, over which the photographer has no exclusivity – rather like the clip-art of the Nineties.

According to industry pundits, the agenda for photolibraries over the next couple of years will be concerned with digital advancement which will be customer driven. Not that many photolibrary customers are presently wired-up sufficiently to receive and, consequently, to be able to choose images electronically, though a number of key libraries are now marketing their services through the Internet.

Also, there is the selection experience to consider – many photolibrary clients enjoy the tactile familiarity of selecting material over a lightbox with colleagues and physically going through portfolios. It would appear that the time isn’t right to abandon traditional modes of delivery and selection and that there is still a place for both the digital future and the traditional know-how.

Copyright issues

Because you have an image in your possession, it isn’t yours to do with it as you wish. It remains the copyright of the photographer or the photolibrary, depending on their licensing agreement, and the use of it will be restricted by the terms of your deal.

The contract is key to establishing your rights with regard to the image. You must be open with the photolibrary about the use of the image – whether it will be in a global project, for example, or just used in the UK. If the use changes you need to get separate permission to use the image in a different application. Such details might affect the fee you pay, but they need to be spelled out in your contract with the library. If you flout the terms, you may be in breach of copyright.

While few designs use an image exactly as it was shot – a detail may be pulled out, for example, or the image may be cropped – you may find yourself facing legal action over copyright infringement if you make big changes.

The best known recent case is that involving photolibrary Tony Stone Images and Canadian designer Stephen Arscott (DW 20 September 1996). TSI won a summary judgement against Arscott in Ontario’s Court of Justice after he had copied a photograph – Potawatamie Indian, by Nick Vedros and licensed to TSI – and manipulated it to enter and win the CorelDraw World Design contest. The court ruled that copyright is still infringed if the image is transferred to another medium.

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