A mystery for Sherlock: Why won’t big media organisations pay for online photos?

BhLXvf5IIAAZvMTThis photo is copyright Samira Ahmed (@SamiraAhmedUK)

I posted some photos on Twitter on Sunday taken on a phone at a family party of a Sherlock Holmes cake, which generated a lot of interest. I’m not a professional photographer, but the images did prove very popular.

MetroUk Online contacted me almost immediately asking to use them. I agreed to let them have a single image for online use only, with copyright maintained by me, and marked as such on the article, for £30. Not a huge fee, but in the circumstances, something, and with my memory TV news fees of £30 to £60 for a single use agency image of a person was normal. And it wasn’t a high res enough photo that I could get a professional agency to handle for me.

Then the BBC America website got in touch yesterday  to say could they run a blogpost all about the cake and my photos. They wanted to embed the tweets as the captions were a big part of the story and Sherlock is “huge” in America. They said they had no money to pay but did pay agencies. In the end after consulting the wonderful folks on “Stop Working For Free”  I said not without payment and that I’d be happy to discuss it with the line manager, not least for the next time this situation arises for them and for me. In the end BBC America said they weren’t going to run a piece at all. The line manager never replied. But I learned informally, that BBC America’s legal advice was that they thought they could use my photos anyway under “fair use”. This seems outrageous.


I noticed The Poke distributed my tweet with a “via” crediting my twitter name, which I think is a bit poor (RT would be more honest, Poke) but they did link to my original tweet and crucially they didn’t post the image on their own website.

So I think there is some consensus on Twitter that you can reuse on Twitter, but using it in an original piece of work on a website is breaching copyright.

In any case, I’d welcome any views, guidance or actual guidelines that some of these organizations operate under. I’ve also contacted the NUJ about it as the freelance rates for photography and journalism don’t cover the unique nature of Twitter.  Twitter is an important profile building tool for journalists, but I fear it is the most vulnerable to exploitation.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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88 Responses to A mystery for Sherlock: Why won’t big media organisations pay for online photos?

  1. David Firn says:

    You acted absolutely correctly, Samira. If fair use applied to any online images used in by what is loosely defined as news media, it would be free to use every commercial photo agency’s content – as they are all easily browsable. But as any web site owner who has been contacted by Getty’s lawyers will know – that would be a VERY expensive mistake. They start by demanding hundreds, of pounds for unauthorised use of their images.

    • samiraahmed says:

      Thanks David. It’s especially hard when the images we’re talking about aren’t professional quality photos I can register with an agency. But the amateur context is EXACTLY what generated the news value. Big organisations would never allow their own material to be used in this way.

    • Getty start by demanding hundreds of pounds irrespective of whether the picture came from them or not. I have known them try this when their picture was a derivative of the one for which they wanted payment. In other words, it was Getty that had the illegal copy.

  2. Tom Shaw says:

    Thank you this article Samira – this happens all too often and usually one of the biggest culprits is Pinterest. A blogger contacted me asking me to advertise with them, only to see they had used one of my images taken from Pinterest – with the credit to them. People are making money from photography these days – but its not the photographers…

    • samiraahmed says:

      I feel I should apologize myself for failing to appreciate just how big a deal this has been for so long for photographers.

  3. welcome the the wonderful world of trying to make a living from photography. A world where everyone loves your images and thinks you pay your mortgage,fuel and food bills with a byline because they value your work just enough they would like to publish it but not enough they are willing to find a budget to pay for it…

  4. Hi Samira – You write “It’s especially hard when the images we’re talking about aren’t professional quality photos” but the fact that professional publishers want to use them means that by definition they ARE of professional quality. Agencies can make their own content choices but if your photograph is good enough for these extremely profitable businesses to want to use then they’re good enough to pay for!

    • samiraahmed says:

      You’re right. As I said in a reply earlier, the amateur context was exactly what made it newsworthy. I’ve since registered with Fotolibra, but it doesn’t solve how to deal with tweets.

  5. Lucas Jackson says:

    I think you can pursue legal avenues if someone uses your picture on their website without paying you, especially if they contacted you first. Look into it because it might be several thousand dollars that you can collect, it’s not right that big media thinks they can just push you down because you are just one person and not another company that they are used to working with.

  6. Si Barber says:

    I suspect that ‘legal advice’ didn’t come from anyone qualified to speak about it. Fair Use is quite well defined in law and this wouldn’t be it.

    Sadly most news organisations seem to try and source images for free and often get away with it because the public don’t know any better and underestimate the value of their images.

    As for what you should charge it depends on the uniqueness on what you have and how bad they want it. The Mail, for example offer £40 for online use of pics they are interested in, but it could run into thousands in some (unusual) cases.

    I would suggest you consider overwriting your images with a copyright mark before you post them on social media. There’s an app called Marksta on iTunes which will allow you to automatically do this.

  7. Ben Milne says:

    Maybe I’m confusing UK law with US law here, but I’m puzzled because as far as I’m aware, legally there is no “fair dealing” in the use of stills – that only applies to broadcast material.

    • samiraahmed says:

      I think it suits big organisations to play with the confusion, and of course to rely on an individual to test the law at their own time and expense. But I think the fact that they’re contacting me means they know they should pay and once they have they can’t run it without permission.

  8. I don’ t see that it matters what you used to take the picture or whether or not you’re an agency. The fact is that the image belongs to you and anyone should negotiate the rights with you as the originator.

  9. John Rogers says:

    Sad thing is Samira, they wont pay professionals either. The rates they offered you are the same as to any professionl photographer. To add to the misery they are also reducing rates as well ’cause everybody is a photographer these days’.

  10. John Walmsley says:

    Samira, welcome to the modern world of the freelance photographer. Very, very few people put any value on photographs these days. At least you had the opportunity to discuss fees and decline permission to use. It has become more common for publications to use first and pay later (if the use is noticed by the copyright holder). Using without permission is an infringement of IP, an offence under the CD&P Act 1988, it’s unlawful but that doesn’t seem to stop people. I spend 2 to 3 days each week dealing with people who have infringed my IP and, when I tell them they must pay for using my images, they typically offer £25 as “The going rate”. I have a case against a national newspaper. They admit using my work without permission and offered this £25. I simply don’t see how a professional photographer could pay bills at that rate and am claiming my rates (based on NUJ guide figures). Case is in court next month. Newspapers were warned by the court in an earlier case that, using without permission and expecting to pay later, although possibly a good business decision, was still unlawful. It hasn’t stopped them, though.

    The government says it definitely supports the creative industries and brought in the Act to protect creatives. So, why do I have so many cases of infringement of my IP against the government and why are they fighting them so hard? I can do without that sort of “Support”.

    I have settled cases against the Scottish Government, a Conservative MP and many cases against textbook publishers. Altogether they represent a couple of years’ income to me. If all these people have quietly retained that much from just me, how much have they withheld altogether? It’s frightening.

    We often have requests to use images for free, some from charities but mostly from quite wealthy companies. It seems almost the norm now, to have no budget for photos. Everyone and everything else is paid for, including the folk who clean the toilet.

    I’ll be giving a talk to the London Freelance Branch of the NUJ on Monday 12th May about infringers and how to deal with them.

    John Walmsley
    Freelance photographer for 45 years
    Member of the NUJ, the Society of Authors, Picture Research Assoc’.
    Work held in the Permanent Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London and Le Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

  11. John Walmsley says:

    Thanks, Samira. Will send a link about my talk at the NUJ on infringers as soon as it’s ready but, to get it in the diaries, I can say it will be from 7pm until 9pm, LFB meeting at NUJ HQ on Monday 12th May.

  12. The digitisation of photography that began in the mid 1990s brought many changes, notably fast transmission at little cost.

    The major problem that this transformation brought about for photographers was the lowering of the value of images. So a licence to use a photograph which an agency, picture library or individual photographer might have sold for £350 in 1995 might today sell for just £50 or less.

    This is primarily because photo agencies have lowered licence fees in a downward spiral of competition. As the agencies lowered licence fees they also began to grant increasingly wider rights. That £350 sale in 1995 may well have been for a single use in a single publication for one month. Your £50 sale today could well be for multiple uses across a variety of media (print, online, ebook, etc) for ten, fifteen or twenty five years, maybe for longer.

    With the lowering of the value of professional images came the ‘no budget’ school of picture acquisition. The BBC are good at this: The broadcaster regularly asks viewers to send in images, some newspapers do the same. No fee is mentioned. Neither is copyright. This is free content after which (or in the case of print or online, beside which) the broadcaster or publisher may place some expensively produced advertising. The ‘no budget’ idea has since spread far and wide.

    Of course, the problem of sourcing images for free has an impact on that standards of journalism. Free images, supplied mainly by amateur photographers, are unlikely to have the same guarantees that images supplied by professionals do. Amateur photographers will not have the training or experience to understand the importance of accurate captions, what acceptable limitations on retouching are and they are also unlikely to understand the full implications of privacy or copyright issues. Or what they might sign away by clicking an agreement.

    Educating the general public about their rights is important. As for us professionals, we are always happy to supply images so long as those professionals who ask us for them understand that our work deserves reasonable payment.

    Finally, given that the Co-op’s finances are in the news again today, do look the abysmal photography of the Queen opening of the Co-op’s new £105m Headquarters that the Manchester Evening News saw fit to publish as a gallery last November (click ‘View Gallery’ halfway down the page): http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/royal-visit-open-new-co-op-6303911

    Then consider how useful, and profitable, a more professional coverage of the event might have been not only to the Manchester Evening News but to the wider media.

  13. If you use an App called Marksta then you can apply a copyright watermark image to any picture before you upload it to any social media stream. That might help protect you in the future.

  14. Tony Bullard says:

    so Metro UK Online paid for the use, but BBC America wants your material for free? I’m not British, but I suggest you tell them to bugger off. It should be a matter of principal for professional photographers to never work for free! There are plenty of students and amateurs who will take these jobs and perhaps polish their skills and benefit from the experience. But unless they are very exceptional, they will always be the photographer willing to work for free.

  15. What people spectacularly fail to realise is the power of the copyright act – but sadly people do not value their work or what they create. Be your kid has drawn a picture of your house with crayons, auntie pat has done a watercolour of her favourite beach, cousin dave recorded a piece of his own music, sister jen the goth produced a sculpture for her art degree or a simple photograph is taken with dads camera or iphone… THIS WORK BELONGS TO THE AUTHOR.

    We are taught and educated and even directed by God not to steal, but it seems acceptable that it is OK to take / republish / reproduce what is not ours on the internet.

    With regards to the BBC they would sincerely not steal and rebroadcast footage from NBC, Sky, NHK as it’s not their copyright – but I guess the producers of BBC news are more clued up than seemingly idiots in other departments.

    The other thing to take not is that you don’t have to sell anything… the ‘going rate’ is a smoke screen.

    Just because Ford cars are $30,000, it does not mean you can get a Mercedes for the same price as it is the ‘going rate’.

    A hi-class shop selling chocolate cakes sets the price of $10 each. If you cant afford the cake, you don’t buy it – simple as. Equally you don’t steal it then offer a lesser fee as the supermarket sells it cheaper for $2. No one is at liberty to sell anything should they choose not to.

  16. Warren says:

    As others have mentioned, there’s no such thing as “fair use” for photographs. If there was, media owners wouldn’t ask permission…

  17. John Walmsley says:

    Hi Samira, you asked me to send details of my talk so you could tweet it:

    London Freelance Branch, NUJ meeting Monday May 12, Friends House (the Quaker building), 173-177 Euston Road, NW1 2BJ, directly opposite Euston station, starts 7pm, main speaker John Walmsley on at 8pm – non-NUJ members welcome. My talk is on tackling infringers of photographs, something I’ve successfully fought back against. There may also be a writer to put the writer’s perspective on the problem.

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