The Problem with "Good" Royalty-Free

by Dale O'Dell

Advance Note: Royalty Free offers stock photographers a new avenue to sell their work, but it also proposes a marketing principle they shouldn't forget: "Don't sell yourself short."

The stock agency owner was in tears. She was dismayed that royalty-free imagery was cutting into rights-protected stock image licensing. She couldn’t believe photographers would sell their works for so little; she was angry that royalty-free distributors were taking advantage of photographers. "There’s nothing good about royalty-free!" she cried. Six months later her agency published its first disk of royalty-free images.

She found one good thing about royalty-free; it was profitable for her.

Royalty-free demeans and devalues photography and photographers. It fills a low-end market niche at the expense of photographers.

Of course if I were a publisher of RF imagery, my opinion would be transformed, like that of the above-mentioned stock agency owner.

Previously in this publication, I wrote that rights-protected agencies would have to concentrate on licensing more innovative, conceptual and artistic imagery to survive. They’d have to do this because what had been their bread and butter ---the commonplace, nuts-and-bolts image--- would go the way of RF. I thought the generic landscape, and the non-creative, hole-in-the-layout filling picture, would all be royalty-free. I thought since the crap was royalty-free, the art would be higher-priced and rights-protected.


I was wrong about royalty-free. It is not all crap, not any more. Sure, the majority of royalty-free images are audaciously average, but…. there is some surprisingly innovative, interesting and artistic imagery showing up in RF collections. This is distressing.

I’m surprised to see works that are unique, innovative, thoughtful and artistic offered as royalty-free. I wonder why some photographers, who obviously have spent hours or days creating truly expressive works, are offering them for pennies, or at the most, a few hundred dollars, royalty-free. Apparently these photographers have no faith in the value and future earning potential of their ‘art.’ They are content to trade valuable artworks for a few dollars today instead of thousands of dollars tomorrow.

Royalty-free is the appropriate marketing tool for commonplace, dime-a-dozen imagery. Why not make a few bucks off a boring cliché that anyone could shoot? But RF is not the instrument for selling imagery that’s unique and potentially highly profitable.

One of your RF "artworks" just might see widespread use. It could become a famous, iconic image. The user of that image may generate a lot of money from your picture. Because it was acquired royalty-free, you won’t get rich and you won’t be recognized. You will remain anonymous and underpaid.

Why sell high-end imagery to the low-end segment of the market?

Dale O'Dell is a regular contributor to PhotoStockNotes. He produces cyber-generated stock photography from his studio in Prescott, Arizona. Email:;VF Phone: 1 520 541-0944; Fax: 1 520 541-0957; Web:

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