We read a thread online about the “merits” of stock agencies. To us that could have been a one-sentence story, but we digress. In the comments section someone said how they owned the copyright and could pursue an infringer. Again, that falls into the category of “Ya didn’t read the fine print, didja?”

We’ve seen this slight of hand in stock contracts, purchase orders, contest entries, and so on. It’s the old shell game, but in fine print. Your copyright is the pea and the words are the shell that go over the pea. In this game, you get to keep your pea, but you’re now standing there in a barrel because you have no clothes or money. But you get to keep your pea.

Let us explain for those that miss our analogy. You own your copyright, but you’ve signed away all rights that mean anything that go with copyright. Like resale rights, alteration rights, and the right to go after and sue infringements. Basically, you own the copyright in name only.

Here’s a real life, from the files, example. You are signed with big name stock agency, Gottcha Photos. They license one of your great images to Bigass Worldwide Mega Company. Bigass violates the license by using it beyond the media and the time period allowed. Because they are world wide and high visibility usage, that type of infringement usually settles for anywhere from mid 5 figures to low 6 figures. Great, you contact a lawyer who finds out that your image is licensed through Gottcha Photos. Knowing their crappy contract that most photographers sign without reading, like this client, lawyer says can’t sue because Gottcha has the rights to pursue infringements. “No problemo!” says the photographer (who isn’t even Hispanic). Photographer says they will get their person at Gottcha Photos to release the right so they can sue. Calls said person who says they’ll get back to photographer.

And they do call back, to inform photographer, “Congrats! We settled with the infringer for you!” Photographer’s cut of the settlement? Mid five figures? High five figures? Nope, $.75 cents, USD. Why? Because the infringer is a “customer” who licenses many images from Gottcha Photos. The photographer? Why that’s just a supplier, not a customer. That’s much lower on the totem pole. In fact, photographers are below ground level.

Typically stock agencies to whom you have foolishly given the right to pursue your infringements, have also obtained from you the right to settle any such claims in their sole discretion.  That means you have no input if they want to settle on the cheap, such as with one of their best customers.

But at least the photographer still owns the copyright! That’s like owning a car, and everyone but you gets to drive it. Ask the parent of a teenager that drives if you don’t understand how that works. Beware of the fine print language meant to distract you from all the other fine print. It’s the old shell game.