It is a falsehood, an abject lie, disingenuous and flat out wrong to assume that stock agencies always seeks the highest licensing fees and “best available deals”. It is not true of any agency nor any business in any industry that has repeat customers or clients. Suppliers, sellers and vendors of goods or services will daily make better deals for their better customers. Hardly noteworthy so long as you are dealing with items like furniture or office products. The vendor may elect to cut the price to the customer based on volume and in so doing simply takes X pennies fewer per product sold or “eats” some labor costs attributable to its workers. Therefore any discount is offered with the vendor assuming any/all risk(s) of reduced pricing to satisfy a good customer who pays on time or in an effort to procure a new customer.
When dealing with intellectual property created by photographers, illustrators or artists the stock agency typically has the ability given to it by a contract signed by the creator, to “set” (see also “cut” “reduce” or “discount”) the creator’s royalty at the sole discretion of the agency. Often, very often, cutting fees and/or offering a large selection/collection of a particular news event or even lifestyle type shot(s) (family having breakfast, at the mall, at the beach etc) to a good client at a reduced fee makes sense to the stock agency and their client but not to you. Often a stock agency will make various forms of discounted offers to secure new clients. As a result many of your brethren have received royalty statements reflecting payments to them of less than one dollar for the licensing of an image in prestigious publications such as: Time, Newsweek, US News, Der Spiegel, Paris Match and just about every newspaper in America.
Typically photographers are not offered any right under their contracts to limit the discount offered on their work nor on how often that work can be discounted whether by “bundling” it with other images shot by other photographers or in some other manner. For many of our photographers we can largely avoid this problem by inserting in their contracts that, “the minimum gross licensing fee for any of photographer’s images shall be no less than X$”. Most photographers are foolish enough to sign stock agency contracts without having them looked at by an accountant and a lawyer. Many judges are understandably of the mind to simply apply the law which in effect says that a business person/entity will not be let out of the terms of a bad contract absent extraordinary circumstances. That is a topic for a future column.
Agency owners and their employees are simply not telling photographers and illustrators the truth. Gasp! Shocking but true. Every stock agency puts forth the same line of BS. Their concern and allegiance is with and to their paying customers, not the artists whose work they license. While there is a finite number of significant paying clients for these companies, there is an infinite number of photographers both professional and amateur, who supply imagery to stock agencies on terms which assure that few if any, significant payments will be made to them.
Another dirty little secret of the industry is that with the coming of digital photography and accessibility to imagery via websites, most (not all) agencies have lowered their standards dramatically. Many amateurs of limited skills now boast of being represented by any number of well-known stock agencies. Few agencies are very selective these days.