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Photographer Licenses Photo To Shutterstock, Is Shocked When It Plays Out Exactly How Everyone Would Imagine


Sometimes the best advantage is the advantage you take of yourself [?]. Canadian photographer Michael Stemm feels he's somehow been robbed of a market for his photography via affirmative steps he took to ensure the market fell into another entity's hands.

Stemm was shocked to find local Walmarts stocking items featuring a photograph he took. But this isn't a case of Walmart finding a picture on the internet and deciding to keep it. It's a case of "read the fine print" before you surrender your creations to a stock photo agency. Michael Zhang of PetaPixel has more details.

[I]n February 2018, [Stemm] learned of using microstock photography to generate extra income, so he “randomly uploaded one picture” to the stock photo service Shutterstock.

The photographer never read Shutterstock's terms and agreement and never checked his account again after uploading the photo, according to Globalnews.ca.

Stemm says he was then shocked to find his photo being “exploited by big companies.”

It turns out a Newfoundland-based company called Islandwide Distributors (IWD) had licensed Stemm’s photo royalty-free from Shutterstock for just $1.88.

That leaves Stemm with less than $2 to collect from Shutterstock for the hundreds of dollars of merchandise sold by Walmart featuring his photo. That may seem wrong, given the licensing terms, but it isn't. But it certainly seems wrong to Stemm, who has strong feelings about the rights he signed away to Shutterstock.

“Walmart is selling my picture without my permission throughout all New Brunswick,” Stemm writes in the description. “I feel like I am being taken advantage of in this situation.”

Well, no. Stemm took advantage of himself. Something he thought would earn him a little extra money is earning Walmart a far bigger sum. But that's exactly how licensing works. Stemm said Shutterstock could license the photo. Shutterstock did exactly that. The fact that Walmart has more than 500,000 items featuring Stemm's photo is probably unexpected, but if you really want to retain full rights to your creation, you don't hand part of those rights over to a middleman. When Walmart licensed the picture from Shutterstock, it didn't seek Stemm's permission because it didn't need Stemm's permission.

For whatever it's worth Walmart Canada has reached out to Stemm to do… something. Maybe a gift card is in Stemm's future, but it seems unlikely Walmart will ditch Shutterstock and license the photo from Stemm directly. Stemm at least knows why this happened and is unlikely to make the same mistake in the future. But him calling it "unfair" shows he hasn't fully taken these lessons to heart.

It certainly seems unfair when a company can make hundreds of dollars from a $1.88 license. But there's nothing unfair about a process that involves a voluntary relinquishment of control. Shutterstock can certainly find a greater market for someone's photos, but no one should go into this relationship believing it will result in newfound personal wealth.


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