Should You Give Away Your Photos For Nothing To People Who Can Pay?

Neon Griffin

I license all of my photos on Flickr Creative Commons, non-commercial. This basically means that anyone can use them for personal use. It also means that non-profits and others can use them.

What it doesn’t mean is that commercial entities can use them for free.

I get asked almost every single day from people whether or not they can use my photos for things or not. These requests range everywhere from a ten-year-old asking me permission to use one of my lady bug photos for her book report (which is very cute) to major companies asking to use them. Many of the requests fall within the creative commons license, but either people don’t understand that or want to ask anyways.

My own general rule is that I, of course, always say yes to appropriate non-commercial or personal use. When the nature is commercial I generally feel out the situation. A lot of people who ask me to use my images for commercial use are pretty cash strapped. I’ve had unsigned bands ask me to use images for album covers. I’ve had first time authors ask me for permission to use my images for their new book. I’ve had poetry journals want to use them. You get the idea. Generally speaking, I tend to allow commercial use of my images to anyone that I feel can’t easily afford to pay for whatever reason. I consider it good karma.

Oftentimes people that use my photos this way will send me a CD from the band, a copy of a book or publication etc. Once I let this band Science for Girls use my images for free for their CD and Darren Solomon, the producer for the small band, later contacted me with an opportunity to use other images for a commercial project where I was paid. Goes around, comes around. It makes you feel good.

A lot of times I get requests from people though who truly can afford to pay. A law firm once used one my images for their company Holiday card, major corporations have used my photos in print or TV ads. My photos have been used in magazines, for greeting cards, for text books. Really all kinds of use. With these buyers I usually negotiate a price I think is fair based on the use. Sometimes $50, sometimes $100, sometimes $500. It just all sort of depends. I’m pretty flexible.

One thing that does bother me a bit though is when companies that clearly can pay, ask for your images for free. They certainly are free to ask, but generally I say no to these people and it does rub me a bit the wrong way seeing large profitable corporations trying to get something off the backs of a community like Flickr for free. On Monday night on our photowalk I was talking to some of the other photographers about this and Jon Bauer mentioned receiving an email from GQ asking to use his images for free. It seems GQ is the latest company looking to score free images off Flickr.

So today I wasn’t surprised to get my own request on one of my images from GQ (photo above):

The email went like this:

“My name is [redacted], and I work in the GQ magazine photo department. I am trying to acquire images of The Griffin in Las Vegas for use on our website. We are going to launch GQs online guide to Las Vegas in two weeks and we would love to include one of your photographs.

Generally, I would never ask for something for nothing. However, at this time we are only able to give credit. If that is okay with you and we can have permission to use one of your images, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Now in GQ’s case I’m going to say no. GQ is owned by Conde Nast. Conde Nast is owned by Advance Publications. Advance publications is owned by the descendents of S.I. Newhouse. These are the mega wealthy of the world. Forbes Magazine ranked Advance Publications as the 41st largest private company in the United States last year. For a major company to try to beg photos for free off of Flickr is bad form in my opinion. And at a minimum they should think about offering a free subscription or something.

I feel that I’m very generous with my photography. Maybe to a fault. And I really like helping people out who I think ought to be helped out. But I’m not so sure that seeing major for profit companies begging photos off Flickr is the best thing for anyone.

My two cents for what it’s worth.

16 Replies to “Should You Give Away Your Photos For Nothing To People Who Can Pay?”

  1. I think it is up to an individual as to whether or not they give away their photos. My stance is similar to yours… my Flickr stream is all CC-licensed Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives. For commercial use, sometimes I allow it for free, sometimes I request payment in some form. The folks at just licensed some photos from me in exchange for, you guessed it, bacon 🙂

    Asking GQ for payment? Definitely what I would’ve done as well.

  2. I have all my photos at Flickr (user=parkylondon) and have them available to anyone who wants them. CC licensed of course with a non-Commercial flavour license. Generous but not stupid.

    However, I have been told that big companies are habitually getting used to just stealing them and using them anyway. Do you have any experience of that and what should we mere mortals do about it if they do?


  3. Parky, I’d be surprised to see (although I’m sure it happens) big companies using your images for free without asking you. The penalties for settling after the fact can be far more than what the image is actually worth if they asked you up front. Most major companies are risk adverse and would rather get the clearance ahead of time.

    Small companies might cut corners and use them without asking, but here too they are taking a risk. With more tools becoming available for photographers to scour their images on the web for profit companies take big risks when they engage in that behavior.

  4. Parky and Thomas: Don’t be too surprised. It definintely happens. Here’s my tale of a big national company helping themselves to my image (and getting busted for it):


    I think they play the odds. The number of times they’re caught and have to pay out doesn’t offset the amount of cash they save by doing it.

    In my case, they had to pay, far more than the $210 they offered after getting caught, but not nearly as much as they would have had I actually registered my copyrights before hand. A word of warning or advice.

  5. That’s ridiculous – they could pay you something… heck, I just did two shoots for a much less well-known magazine, and I will get paid.

    Every time I say yes to letting a commercial company use my photos with no charge, I am keeping a commercial photographer from making a living. I try to remember that as much as I can.

    On another note: I am sorry I let yelp use my photos, because now I can’t delete them, and I have lost the ability to control their use.

  6. I’ve had to make similar calls in the past. Schmap has asked me for a few of my NYC images, and I gave them the go ahead to use fingernail size copies. I have no idea who is behind Schmap, maybe they could afford it and maybe they couldnt, but it seemed neat enough idea like a cross between wikipedia and a commercial venture that I said ok.

  7. Good point and good read.

    For commercial companies especially big ones it is difficult to pay. For every such payment they need to create a supplier account, create a purchase order, track delivery, book receipt of goods, need an invoice from such ‘supplier’, book the invoice, etc.

    For them it is less effort to send out a bunch of e-mails, use what they get and forget about the rest.

    That said, I don’t give away my photographs for free, exceptions being made.

  8. I have had several photos from my Flickr photostream being used without my knowledge. I have either found them accidentally or been told by other people.

    Its seems to be becoming more prevalent on the web and its a good thing we do have certain tools at our disposal to be able to search for our own images.

  9. A couple of weeks ago a magazine contacted me about using one of my photos. It’s a small publication, but is filled with ads. I figured they could afford to pay me something. They offered credit and I told them I would like a small payment, but if they couldn’t do that then credit would work. I never heard back from them.

    It’s probably cold comfort to know that writers have it just as bad. People are offering $2 for 500 words of SEO-friendly copy. I kid you not. I can bang out 500 words, but I still have to research the topic, check my work for errors, then do any requested rewrites – all for two lousy bucks. But why pay that when they can scrape content off of my site? I don’t take a job unless it pays a fair price and I know I’m going to get paid. Do I work less? Yes. Do I make more money than the people banging out 500 word articles? Probably.

    Yes, I do adjust my rates for small publications and often do pro bono work for small non-profits. Like you say, Thomas, it’s good karma. I feel my rates are reasonable, but I refuse to lowball them for a company that can darned well pay. Generally, they get what they pay for.

  10. I have a very similar philosophy and I’ve turned down significantly more “Credit only!” requests from multinationals than I can shake a stick at. When a major Seattle daily asked to use a photo for credit only I asked them what did the Union photographers think of a non-union photographer being used. The photo editor said they’ve had horrible contract erosion and that they could use a non-union photo if it was physically taken more than 100 or 150 miles from downtown Seattle! I turned them down, too.

    A major gardening magazine website recently used one of my CC-NC photos. When I informed them they were using my image against the published license they had the gall to tell me that yes they WERE using the image correctly because the page containing the image was free to the public but they would abide by my wishes to remove the photo.

    On the flip side I have no problem with educational institutions, orchid societies, orchid students, etc. using my photos. That generosity just landed me a partially paid trip to Australia to lecture about orchids. So, as you say Thomas, what goes around comes around.

  11. Thomas, are you even legally allowed to “sell” that particular image? Is it not a trademark?

    I was recently contacted by somebody wanting to use a photo I took of an emblematic and easily recognisable L.A. building. I had to decline the offer because I do not have a property release (and would never get one) and while I own the copyright of the photo, I do not own the copyright of the building. Not quite the same case as with your sign, but similar.

  12. Some very intriguing thought Thomas.
    My attitude is that if someone has actually tried to use his photography as a way to make a living-like myself, it’s absurd to offer something for nothing-with the exceptions being kids/ladybugs and charities that one may find of considerable personal interest.
    Non-profits always expect something for nothing although they have staff that get’s paid and rent to offices that must be paid and when they hold events they have to pay the waiters and the pay for food-or should everyone do it for free ?
    Catholic Charities paid Patty Blagovich over a hundered thousand dollars to be part of their staff. That’s a “non-profit” too.
    No wonder creativity, years of training and hard work, long hours don’t matter.. If everyone did their jobs for free they be living on the street begging for charity from non-profits.
    That’s why the use of photography to earn a living is almost over with today.

  13. I have been searching Google and Yahoo and kept seeing coming across your posts so I thought I would drop by and check your site out. Thanks for the useful and informative stuff you have here… I’ll be back!

  14. I have an album of really great pictures i have taken from time to time so im checking who would like to see them, if this person is interested in some they are on sale!:)
    e-mail me at


  15. I have all my photos at Flickr (user=parkylondon) and have them available to anyone who wants them. CC licensed of course with a non-Commercial flavour license. Generous but not stupid.

    Check out my site if you got a second

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