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How To Get Microstock Payment Royalties And Licenses

If we are a photographer, we are of course interested in the commission payments we will receive if (or, more probably, when) our work sells. Here we briefly consider the other pros and cons for the current four leading microstocks.

All stock photo images sold are sold subject to terms contained in a license the buyer agrees to at the point of sale. That license grants the buyer certain rights that govern how the image can be used. Standard licenses tend to restrict the use of images to print runs not exceeding 250,000 or 500,000 and limit the use of the image in certain ways. For example, a standard license might allow the use of the image on a Web site, up to a certain resolution, but not in a Web template or as an item for resale, such as a mug or mouse pad. Some uses require the purchase of an extended or enhanced license; this costs more money and therefore nets a bigger royalty for you, the photographer.

So, let’s revisit our “top four” libraries and see where the cash is coming from.


Dreamstime claims that its royalties are the best in the industry, at least in terms of percentages. The photographer can receives a commission of 50% per sale. Images offered exclusively through Dreamstime receive a 60% commission, while exclusive photographers enjoy an additional bonus of $0.20 for each approved submission. However, Dreamstime boss Serban Enache points out that if you add in the bonuses that Dreamstime supports, the real royalty fi gure is closer to 80%, which is claimed to be the best in the industry. To qualify for a payout, Dreamstime needs to owe you at least $100, a fi gure you should soon reach if you submit a reasonable amount of work to it.

As prices for successful images increase incrementally, your commission in absolute terms can also increase. The downside of Dreamstime is the need to maintain online 70% of new uploads for 6 months. Files older than 6 months can be deleted at any time. This 6-month retention for new uploads may be a nuisance if you should decide you want to pull your work from Dreamstime for any reason, for example, if you want to accept artist exclusivity at iStockphoto. I know I objected to the idea when it was fi rst introduced, but it should not be a problem for most people.

We can make money by opting in to Dreamstime’s extendedlicense regimen. The standard royalty-free license covers most uses the average buyer is likely to need, such as in Web sites, magazines, newspaper, books, fl yers, or any other advertising and promotional material, in either printed or electronic media, but there are some restrictions that require the purchase of an extended license.

Dreamstime’s “U-EL” extended license removes the single-seat restriction (i.e., one-person use only); the “I-EL” extended license extends the number of copies, such as a print run, from 500,000 to 2,500,000; the “W-EL” extended license allows your images to be used in Web templates, screen savers, e-cards, PowerPoint presentations, and cell phones; and the “P-EL” extended license covers physical items for resale, such as t-shirt graphics, greeting cards, and mugs. Finally, there is the option to sell all rights (“SR-EL”).

These extended licenses are relatively expensive for buyers, particularly the SR-EL option—but think carefully before you opt for the SR-EL option as this is a complete buyout of all your rights, not something I’d recommend without contemplation. You, the photographer, set the buyout price.

FTP upload is available but is rationed so that those photographers with low acceptance ratios are excluded.

Dreamstime has recently undergone a facelift, greatly improving the appearance of the site. It is now one of the nicest around, in my view. It has some neat features, including an “In the News” section and blogs, which Serban hopes will help increase the sense of community at Dreamstime. Dreamstime certainly deserves its place at the microstocks’ top table.


Shutterstock likes to keep things simple (simple sells in more ways than one), and that applies to its commission structure. The standard commission paid for each sale is $0.25, but from May 1, 2007, Shutterstock increased royalties to $0.30 per sale if you have at least $500 in earnings. That’s pretty much it for photos.

Shutterstock offers standard and “enhanced” licenses, with the former being perhaps a tad more restrictive than that at Dreamstime, with a 250,000 print run restriction. Shutterstock conveniently has a comparison page to show the differences between its standard and enhanced licenses at http://www. shutterstock. com/ license_comparison .mhtml. There is, at the time of this writing, no complete rights buyout option advertised.

It is difficult to audit value with Shutterstock because there are no statistics as to the average number of images downloaded by subscribers. Consider as an example someone who purchases a subscription with Shutterstock for, example, 3 months at $600, with a total daily download limit of 25;
how many images does that subscriber download?
I doubt it’s the maximum of 2,250 over 3 months, which would equate to $675 in commission payable at the top $0.30 rate. More likely, it is around half that number or less—so an educated guess is that you, the photographer on top rate, would receive around 50% commission. If correct (and I make no pretence at being a math genius), this is not too bad. Shutterstock is one of the top “must subscribe to” libraries, in my view—proof, if needed, that you can make dollars from cents.

Shutterstock’s nice, clean site is appealing to those who just want to get on with business, and their FTP upload option helps to make life easy for photographers who want to upload in bulk.


Fotolia’s commission structure is pretty complex, with a number of variables. The minimum commission is 33% of the sales price for a nonexclusive image and 50% of the sales price for an exclusive image. There is no artist exclusivity option on Fotolia. The percentage commission increases with the photographer’s ranking, which is based on the total number of downloads. There are eight levels, ranging from White for a beginner with fewer than 100 downloads to Diamond for a photographer with more than 500,000 downloads.

The percentage commission jumps by 2% for each level, reaching a maximum of 47% at Diamond level. At the time of this writing, no one has reached Diamond level on Fotolia. These percentages are scaled up for images offered exclusively; add 7% to each level.

Another factor is the image size, with the number of credits required to buy an image increasing by size, from one for small through fi ve for XXL, fi ve for vectors, and more for extended licenses. There is an FTP upload option available.

Fotolia’s strong presence in the European market is an undoubted benefi t to any photographer looking to maximize his or her portfolio’s exposure to a broader range of buyers. Fotolia has a local presence in eight countries (United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, and Portugal). It also offers Web sites, key wording, and customer support in six languages (English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese). One of the benefi ts is that a photographer can upload and key word images in his or her native language, and, upon acceptance, the key words are automatically translated into all six languages supported on Fotolia.

Currently, Fotolia has undergone a major database redesign intended to increase its speed. There have been some spin-off problems, but it is getting back to normal now. The site is less “tight” in appearance than Shutterstock’s site, and the Fotolia menu layout is, I think, frankly bizarre. But Fotolia is a site on the way up, with a particularly strong European focus, and it has been rated by none other than Bruce Livingstone of iStockphoto as a threat. Defi nitely a site to watch.


For many, iStockphoto is a top earner, but it has a very controversial artist exclusivity option that divides the standard, nonexclusive photographer, who receives a fi xed commission of 20% (yes, you read that right, just 20%), and exclusive photographers, who receive up to a maximum of 40% commission when they hit 25,000 downloads.

iStockphoto is very keen to secure your services as an exclusive photographer. It operates a “canister” reward system that ranks photographers by the number of downloads they have had from their portfolio. For nonexclusive photographers, these canisters (which appear by your name on the site) are simply status symbols, but for exclusive photographers, they govern the percentage commission you receive. Here is a list of the current photographer canister rankings, with the exclusive commission rates in parentheses (you are eligible for exclusivity at 250 downloads, or the Bronze canister level): 0–249 is White, 250–2,499 Bronze (25%), 2,500–9,999 Silver (30%), 10,000– 24,999 Gold (35%), 25,000–200,000 Diamond (40%), and 200,000 Black Diamond (no change).

Make no mistake, iStockphoto is a great choice for inclusion in your portfolio of microstock libraries, but I cannot help thinking how much better it feels to be earning 50% commission or more from other sites, a fi gure even iStockphoto exclusives at the top rate do not receive. Twenty percent for nonexclusive photographers is too low, and I believe it will have to be raised as iStockphoto comes under increasing competitive threat from other microstock libraries. There is also an extended license option available.

Like Fotolia, iStockphoto has gone international, with the ability to choose which language you would like your Web site to be displayed in, automatic key word translation, and a choice of currencies for payment.

Presently, there is no FTP upload for photographers; instead, there are third-party bulk upload alternatives. Otherwise, you have to submit images one at a time, which is time consuming. iStockphoto has an outstanding, well-designed site, full of content, with carefully monitored forums that are best used for technical queries. Any signifi cant criticism is usually deleted—use the independent forums for that. It also runs events for its photographers called “istockalypses,” where you turn up and shoot models and places and meet other iStockphoto photographers.

My concluding view of iStockphoto is that it’s a great site, superbly designed and run, but with commissions that are too low even for exclusive photographers (and absurdly low for nonexclusive photographers) and a culture that verges on the fringe of a religious cult. A site to be admired and used, but (save for a few insiders) probably not loved.

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