A world to win

"The NUJ has to go global." That was the eyebrow-raising conclusion of Andrew Wiard's discourse at the March LFB meeting on the growing dominance of the world photographic market by two billionaire-owned digital agencies, Getty and Corbis.

An immediate, practical step towards showing that the union had actually decided "to tackle the world powers" now confronted by photographers on a regular basis, he argued, would be to appoint a full-time photographic organiser - "Someone with the authority to get on a plane to New York or Brussels and deal with these problems as they arise".

These distinct digital-age problems arose from the coming of the internet and of Mark Getty, who circa 1995 originated both his eponymous agency and the now axiomatic aperçu: "Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century". Bill Gates, Microsoft mogul but also founder and proprietor of Corbis, may not have such a gift for startling utterance, but he clearly got the same idea at about the same time.

"Mark Getty, of course, is the grandson of Paul, the [late] oil magnate," said Wiard - a long-time activist and in the 1980s one of the key NUJ campaigners who secured improved legal standing for photo- graphers in what became the 1988 Copyright Act.

"He is applying his grandpa's business principles to intellectual property. The sole objective of Getty is to acquire copyrights in order to make as much money as possible. "This is new. We might not like newspaper and magazine publishers, but at least they are there primarily to publish.

"Photographers might not always have liked the traditional agencies they sold their stock pictures through, but at least they were small, you had a personal relationship with them, you felt at home. But Getty and Corbis have taken a lot of them over, ripped up the old contracts and imposed their own standard terms."

This was damaging in two main areas, said Wiard.

Firstly, the twin giants and their satellites try to arm-wrestle every photographer they deal with into signing all-rights-grabbing contracts, or commission them on a work-for-hire basis which means that, under American law at least, they never own copyright in their work anyway.

This would incorporate waiver or loss of the moral rights to a credit and to defend the "integrity" of their work. That is, it would leave them without legal redress against distortion by cropping or computer manipulation.

And secondly, they further reduce photographers' immediate and potential income from stock by seeking to impose a 60/40 split in the companies' favour, compared to the conventional 50/50. In addition, presumably to simplify administration, they prefer to sell to clients on a royalty-free basis so that, after the initial fee is paid, any later usages will be gratis and for nothing.

"You might think, 'Well my stock is still in slides and photographs mainly so I'll still be on 50 per cent'. But we are now finding these companies won't sell images in traditional form, so they have to be converted into digital and then the photographer only gets 40 per cent.

"And though the Getty all-rights contract does say you don't have to sign away your rights, photographers who refuse tend to find their material isn't selling."

However, Wiard stressed that all is not lost. Both copyright and income can be defended, he believes, more readily by photographers acting individually and collectively than by the medium-sized agencies that are falling easy victim to Getty/ Corbis marketplace muscle.

He said that a workable strategy to, as Chuck D has it, "fight the power" would include:

  • The NUJ getting strategically stuck in as above.

  • Joining and supporting the Stock Artists Alliance ("A historic first. It can negotiate globally and it has already improved elements of the Getty and Corbis contracts").

  • Photographers using the digital agency alamy.com, a "good guy" paying photographers 70 per cent on stock sales ...

  • ... and/or digitally marketing their own work ("For £20,000 you can buy the equipment to get your pictures to a client's screen before Getty and Corbis").

  • And hang on to that copyright, or you're scuppered from the outset.

Watch this space for updates on LFB's follow-up to this story.

Last modified: 18 Apr 2003 - © 2003 contributors
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