How much is a photo truly worth? Less than you think


Much has been written about how YouTube has influenced the face of online video and the entertainment industry at large, but little ink is devoted to one simple tool that has since become universal across all online video: the embed button. Though I doubt YouTube invented it, the company’s ubiquity ensured the standardization of the embed button so that virtually no media property today, whether it’s Hulu or Comedy Central, posts video to the open web without the ability to embed it on an outside website.

Think of how much better the web is because of this. It could have just as easily become the norm that in order to view a video, you had to visit the website on which it’s hosted. And if you dared to place it on your own website then you’d get hit with onerous copyright lawsuits and takedown notices. The embed button has removed unwanted friction from the internet, and artists have quickly realized that it’s better to have their content spread across a multitude of aggregators and WordPress blogs, even if it means not having 100 percent control of how your videos are presented or introduced — or collecting payment from every single website that embeds the video. More virality presents more opportunities for brand building and marketing.

So if we learned and accepted this concept about rich video content so early in the web’s development, why do we still refrain from applying it to static images? While it’s accepted dogma that the embedding of a video on your website is perfectly permissible as long as proper credit is given, taking and reprinting an image, even if you give the image’s creator credit and a link back to his website, is still considered theft.

Well, not all content creators consider it theft  — the problem is you’ll never know which ones do until you’re slapped with a lawsuit. All across the country, different media companies have adopted different policies for how to approach images. More traditional legacy publications, on the advice of their lawyers, adopt an extremely conservative approach, not only refraining from posting photos they don’t have the rights to, but barring their social media editors from uploading AP and other wire images — images they’ve paid for — to the news outlets’ official social media platforms (basically, because they don’t technically own their social media profiles, they consider it a breach of contract if they post an AP photo to Facebook or Twitter).

Other news outlets, typically the more nimble, digital-only ones, have more permissive approaches. Buzzfeed, for instance, has long maintained a policy that a single image contained within a longer post full of other images constitutes fair use, and therefore a link credit is sufficient payment. But with dozens of such posts created a day, it only takes a small handful of image creators to ruin the parade. In 2013, a photographer named Kai Eiselein sued Buzzfeed, claiming $3.6 million in damages, for reprinting a rather mundane soccer photo without his permission. In his complaint, he listed not only Buzzfeed’s alleged misuse of the photo, but all the other websites that later published that same photo as a result of Buzzfeed’s original post.

Now I would warrant that the photo not only wasn’t worth $3.6 million, its reprint value wasn’t even worth $50. In a world where the effort to shoot and publish a photo has been made minuscule by the ubiquity of smartphones, the value of a single image, all by its lonesome, is worth nothing more than a link credit, and photographers who spend their time getting angry and slapping websites with DMCA takedown requests should instead be emailing those websites and asking for links.

There are plenty of photographers out there who have learned the harness this more permissive approach to copyright. One of my favorite examples is Gage Skidmore. During the 2012 presidential election, when he was a 19-year-old college student, Skidmore traveled to political events and shot professional-quality photography of GOP primary candidates like Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. But rather than trying to license the content to news agencies, he uploaded it to Flickr with a creative commons license. Journalists and bloggers discovered the photos, and as of September 2012, his photo credit, using his name and often a link back to one of his web properties, appeared over 1 million times.


This free marketing has led to many business opportunities for Skidmore. In some case, news orgs voluntarily paid him for the reprints, and he was able to license some of the images for physical print products, including a book. It has also helped market his skills as a professional photographer so that he can generate clients for his portrait photography business.  Professional photographers fear that if they allow reprint without payment, it will devalue their work, but there will always be a market need for original photography, whether it’s the hiring of a wedding photographer or a photo shoot for a news publication. Sure, thousands of publications reprinted Kim Kardashian’s glossy ass photo, many without paying money to Paper magazine, but the interest generated from those reprints drove gargantuan levels of attention and traffic to Paper’s website. The photographer who shot that photo certainly earned his keep.

There are dozens of ways a photographer can utilize the marketing value of free reprints of her work to generate significant revenue. Cory Doctorow, a longtime Creative Commons advocate, lists several of them in his most recent book, including everything from selling swag to auctioning off original versions of your art.

The main problem is that, unlike the case with online video, where such practices have been widely adopted, there’s been no such standardization for static images. Sure, more platforms are allowing the easy embedding of photography, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but it may be that these tools were introduced too late in the web’s development, and so their use is limited. For now, publishers will have to play it by ear, establishing their own policies for how to post and properly attribute images. And if you’re a photographer who comes across one of your images on a blog or website, instead of Googling “how to send a DMCA takedown request,” consider simply sending an email asking for credit and a link. You’d be surprised how happy the website’s owner will be to oblige.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.