We photographers and video makers are all artists, and artists just want to create and don’t care about the rest, including the copyright matter, which is just an obstacle to our art.
But as microstock contributors, unfortunately, if we want to make money with stock images and stock footage, we should learn what commercial and editorial licenses are.
In January 2009, I produced for iStockphoto exclusively. I wasn't already a full-time contributor, but I didn’t improvise shootings as I worked with a method.
While planning a trip to create new content, even before choosing the destination:
- I analyzed the agencies search engines
- I found what the most sold footage was
- I tried to understand what subjects and techniques buyers were looking for
In other words, I tried to find the best places to shoot among those that no one had already shot, along with trying to find new ideas to shoot the most requested locations.
The Eiffel Tower at night
After planning to visit Paris and checking iStockphoto search engine more accurately, I was astonished and excited:
There was no stock footage of the Eiffel Tower at night.
In other words, I could have the chance to make a lot of money.
In 2009, it was relatively easy to earn on microstocks, at least for video makers (with stock images, there was already too much competition on easy-to-shoot subjects like Paris).
I was convinced that I had found an idea that I absolutely had to exploit as soon as possible to get a passive income, since the Eiffel Tower at night was a timeless subject that I could sell for years.
From low-cost traveler to microstock contributor
Even before being a microstock contributor, I had been a frequent low cost traveler, so in less than an hour, I booked a flight to Paris Beauvais, triangulating it with Barcelona to contain costs by dividing them over filming two cities.
After three days in the Catalonia, which is much more fun to live but less salable in the microstock market than the French capital, I landed in the Ville Lumière:
- I waited for the evening to come down.
- I took the subway to Trocadero.
- I walked a few meters to reach the terrace with the most beautiful view in the world.
It was not very hard for me to find the right spot to film the Eiffel Tower as I had already been there. In any case, I could have found it at home with Google street view. Actually, it was suspiciously too easy to shoot that footage.
Back home, I edited the photo sequence to create a time-lapse with After Effects and sent the stock footage for review to Istockphoto, which at the time only accepted commercial licensed material (one of the reasons why other agencies gradually overtook it).
We can not sell your stock footage
After two weeks, I received an email that went something like this:
We cannot accept the content because it infringes the copyright laws.
Since it seemed to me an absurd justification, I checked on the internet, and I realized that there was no loophole to it because the matter had already been largely debated by lawyers:
The image of the Eiffel Tower at night cannot be used under the commercial license because the lights that illuminate it are considered a piece of art protected by copyright laws.
I’m not a guy who gives up easily. Consequently, I first wrote to iStockphoto, pointing out that the Tower was only a very small part of the frame, and therefore, they could not prevent me from exercising my freedom of expression by placing limitations on the filming of a panorama that included thousands of other buildings.
The answer, although the agency was Canadian at the time (today it is American), was in the Italian way (don’t worry, I am a proud Italian):
They gave me the email address of the institution that managed the exploitation of the image of the Eiffel Tower which still hasn't answered me.
What is an editorial use license?
I told you this story as a sort of funny remembrance of the drama of a producer of stock footage in the golden age of microstock, who wrongly thought he was in front of the perfect subject, to explain to you what an editorial license is in microstock.
If the stock images and footage you shoot include, for example:
- brand names
- copyrighted places (modern buildings, graffiti …)
- recognizable people
- car plates
- recognizable animals, presumably owned by someone
the agencies will reject your content if you don’t use an editorial use only license.
As written in the contract you signed (probably without reading it), you will even be liable to lawsuits for non-compliance with the rules on the protection of intellectual property and privacy if you make a mistake.
Which law to apply?
This is what can happen in theory, but it’s not that bad, and let me tell you why.
Microstock is a market without borders, since it takes place on the internet.
So which laws should it refer to?
I am Italian, and I shoot a clip in Japan. I sell it through an American agency, and this is purchased by a Russian buyer who uses it in a project that will be published in India. If there’s a problem with the copyright, in which of the five countries will I be sued?
The alternative answer is:
That's why probably no one will ever bring you to trial.
Theoretically, you risk losing a lot of money by messing with licenses. In real life, you risk only that your content is rejected by the agency (however, ask a lawyer for confirmation; I am an expert in microstock, not in law).
Agencies need the editorial license more than you do
This is only my opinion:
Licenses are a legal loophole for agencies to offer a greater variety of content.
The photos and videos sold with the editorial license are not commonly used by the news. If you film an anonymous street and a car passes by and a single frame the car brand is visible or the plate readable, even for a second, the only way to sell that footage is to select the editorial license.
Without the editorial license loophole, the earnings that I got for a 10-second video that I sell on Pond5 would not exist:
Neither for me nor for the agency.
The same rule applies to thousands of sellable subjects:
- the window of a fashion shop in Milan
- the billboards of Times Square in New York
- the sign of a bar anywhere in the world
Commercial use licenses are time-consuming to handle. Even if you use a friend or a family member as a subject, you always need a signed release to sell the contents they appear in. That release changes from agency to agency, at least if you don’t use apps like Easy Release.
If you portray children, it’s an even worse situation: you need the signature of both parents.
Disney Parks footage and images
If you shoot a Disney Theme Park and then upload your footage to Pond5 or Shutterstock, something strange happens:
Shutterstock will reject it even if you select the editorial license while Pond5 won’t.
For a company like Shutterstock, avoiding a lawsuit against a multinational very rich company is better than losing the few thousand dollars it would earn from the sale of the content shot in Disney Parks.
But at the same time, there are those who have a less prudent strategy, like Pond5 does. It is just a matter of risk and benefit assessment like in all the businesses.
How to turn an editorial use only image to commercial
Let me give you some simple advice as an old-time microstock contributor. From 2007 to 2009, I contributed exclusively to Istockphoto, which only accepted stock footage sold with the commercial license. During that time, I spent my nights in front of the computer blurring logos and faces.
Later, I started uploading to other agencies, and I stopped editing my content to make it sellable with the commercial license, as I realized that there are no big differences in the earnings if you opt for the editorial use only license. This is because, unless the content is used in advertising, most buyers can use editorial use only images and footage in their projects.
If you are the executive producer of a documentary or a TV show and are looking for videos of the Eiffel Tower at night, of Piccadilly Circus in London or of many corners of other cities in the world, you will not consider it a problem that brands and recognizable people are in the content that you are about to use.
So don’t waste your nights in front of your computer turning an editorial use only subject into a commercial use one because you’re wasting your time.
Use the strategy of deleting or blurring the images only if the modification is quick to practice and invisible to the viewer, as in the case of the image above, because sales aren’t worth it, and in business, time is money.
In my podcast, I used to answer questions from other contributors. Many of these relate to copyright and privacy. You can find some of them below:
People walking on the street
Regarding the sale of videos and photos to agencies, if I shoot people or children while crossing the street, do I have to ask for a release?
Or by marking the content as editorial, is this useless?
If you sell that kind of content on a microstock, by selecting the editorial license, you do not have to ask people for any release. The only thing I would pay close attention to is children, for whom, unless it is a public event, I would always avoid any filming for ethical reasons.
Common sense always applies. If you frame a street and there are recognizable adult passersby, and they are only a very small part of the frame, there is no problem.
On the contrary, I strongly discourage you from taking close-ups of people, even in public spaces, because, in that case, the subject is no longer the place but the person. The agencies will not accept the video or the photo if you did not upload the release.
In a lesson of your course, you say that if I put people in front of a famous background, my content would be more profitable than the average contributor’s content because only one in 100 video makers want to hire models for their stock footage.
Will I have to upload the release for videos made with models?
Yes, you need it. If you portray a model without the release, you can’t even sell the video or the photo with the editorial license.
Before hiring people, you should make them sign the release (which will be different for each agency, unless you use specific apps like Easy Release).
Permissions to photograph
I read that to shoot modern monuments, you need permission; otherwise, you can incur penalties. While looking at your portfolio in microstocks, I see that you created a lot of stock footage in cities.
Did you get the permits or am I missing something?
I also know that you cannot use the tripod in public places; how did you shoot with it?
In most countries, there are 2 conflicting rights:
- The right to report
- The right to protect copyright and privacy
When they talk about a statistic on the news, they usually show a crowded street full of recognizable people, even though there is the right to privacy. For similar reasons, if you sell stock footage of
- Recognizable people
you can upload that content if you mark it as editorial, even if some agencies can sometimes reject it for their policy, like Shutterstock does with Disney Parks.
About the tripod, it’s true: I have shot most European capitals for years, and no one has ever bothered me. The maximum you risk to do so is that a policeman comes to you and asks if you are authorized.
At that point, you pretend not to know that permission is needed, and it ends there.
Palaces newer than 150 years old
If I want to upload stock footage in which buildings and pedestrians are portrayed, can I incur some rejection by agencies due to the lack of a release?
In reading the Adobe Stock rules, they do not accept stock images and stock footage that show buildings that are less than 150 years old or created by an architect who has been dead for over 70 years.
When filming a city, this is not possible, so how did you do it?
I gave up Adobe Stock years ago. They have a strict policy in terms of editorial and commercial license. They allow regular contributors to upload only content salable with the second one; therefore, filming a city is very complicated if you want to sell those images and footage on Adobe Stock.
The other agencies accept the editorial license instead. This gives you a great deal of freedom on the subject, so you can opt for them and leave Adobe Stock, like I did.
Just selecting the editorial license?
If there are logos, recognizable faces or signs, is it enough to publish them with an editorial license to avoid running into any copyright problems.
Are there any differences in sales for the two types of license?
If there are, for example, recognizable people, logos, or car license plates in the photo or video and you want to sell that content in microstock, by selecting the editorial license, you are ok.
Logically, you have to be careful. You can’t shoot children playing in the park and then sell their photos or videos on Shutterstock or you can’t film two people through the window of a bar and then sell their photos.
VIP stock images
In my archive, I have several images of celebrities photographed on commission for some magazines. I own the rights.
Can I sell them in stock agencies with the editorial use only license?
Do I need the person’s signed release even if they are VIP?
You can sell VIP images in microstocks if you select the editorial license.
By selecting it, you do not need any release, whether it is a VIP or an ordinary person, or a logo, but in the case of people like you and me, you have some limits:
- Do not shoot them in private places.
- Do not take close-ups.
- Do not shoot them in private situations on public spaces.
More than that: please consider that the VIP’s image or footage on microstock sites sells little. The time you waste by uploading the photos and inserting titles and keywords for them is not worth the earnings which that type of photo generates.
There is a whole other kind of subject that sells better in microstocks.
Lawsuit or No Lawsuit?
Let's talk about the case of a video with recognizable people shot in a public space (like the case history of your course about Abbey Road in London). You can't ask for a release from people who appear in the footage.
The copyright issue in microstock is a very complicated matter, and I always ask myself if someone will ever sue you, as their damage is just a few tens of euros.
In the case of people portrayed in stock images and stock footage—even if you’re not sure that they can be considered recognizable, I recommend that you select the editorial license as you won't have a major drop in sales. I’ve tested it for more than 15 years.
The frame above is from a video I shot in Trafalgar Square, London.
That place is constantly crowded with people, and there are a lot of logos in the buildings that surround it and on the double-decker buses that pass by.
For these reasons, you have to use the editorial license to sell the stock image or the stock footage. But there’s also a privacy matter.
Let's suppose that while you are recording your footage or taking your photo, a couple passes by. They are two lovers who shouldn't be there because of their partners.
Your stock footage or your stock image is then bought by a TV program, like a news bulletin that uses it while the voice-over talks about a statistic in England. The partner of one of the two lovers watches it and asks for a divorce.
Can those two lovers sue you?
Yes, they can sue you, because you didn’t portray a strike that you can always document since the right to press is one of the foundations of any democratic country.
At that point, you go to trial, but nobody knows what will happen. Your lawyer’s strategy will probably be:
Without the editorial license, Trafalgar Square could not be shown on television, so the right of every person to see the main square of a major city in the world can be involved in using content with the editorial license.
So the use of content set in Trafalgar Square, even if there are recognizable people in the shot, must have the same rules of the footage as the tribunes of a stadium during a sports event, that of the people watching a presidential speech or of the pedestrians who walk in the streets in the background of a journalist talking on the news.