I'm late on the uptick with this—I completely missed it when it happened, last Spring, and only learned about it yesterday from Stephen Gillette's "Featured Comment" to the iTunes post—but it's too interesting not to mention.
Photographer Robert Lam's microstock picture of a jar half-filled with coins was used for the "illustration" on the cover of TIME magazine for April 27th, 2009. Here's the original image on iStockphoto. iStockphoto got the photo credit, and Robert evidently didn't even find out about it until July, when he got paid. He mentioned it on Model Mayhem and sparked a multi-page thread. He reports that he got $31.50 for the use of his image on the cover; iStockphoto's page seems to indicate they'd need a payment of at least $125, so presumably the agency got to keep the other $93.50.
The going rate for an editorial TIME cover is reportedly $1,800 plus expenses (for those of you who aren't pros, that's when they hire you and tell you what to shoot, presuming you're able to deliver what they want). For sure they've paid many multiples of that in the past, but doubtless for unique pictures that were highly newsworthy and timely (wonder how much Dirck Halstead got paid for the famous picture of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? I'll see if I can find out [UPDATE: See Dirck's Featured Comment below]).
Photographers love to p-ss and moan about microstock, and I sympathize, but look at it the other way around for a sec: what does it take, really, to do a photograph like that jar of coins? Admittedly, $31.50 probably doesn't even pay minimum wage for the time it took to do it, but microstock works (if it works) by making multiple sales. I'm sure 90% of our readers could do that shot. I'm sure dozens of other photographers have done that shot, or something very similar to it. And, really, why should TIME pay any more than it has to? Does Warren Buffet pay any more for toilet paper than anybody else does, just because he can?
From a non-photographer perspective, you've got to admit it's pretty funny that TIME paid $125 for a cover photo to illustrate a story about "The New Frugality"! At the very least, some art director there has a sense of humor.
And if you were in the business of selling microstock, wouldn't you be pleased to sell into such a high-level usage? Why is that any worse than selling into a phone book ad or a church newsletter? The seller sets the price. Getting his price (and such a prestigious clip) wasn't a bad thing for Robert Lam: he said of the sale, "I am happy."
But, looking at it from the other direction, look at the two little inset photos on the TIME cover above. Those two photographers got paid more than the guy who did the big shot.
I can't resist another pretty funny link fished out of the Model Mayhem thread (WARNING: some spicy workplace- and school-unfriendly language in this):
(If you can't see this video, go here.)
When I was at Photo Techniques, the sad fact is that we could have run most of our covers, and most of our portfolios, for free—most photographers would indeed have been more than happy to donate the work just for the publicity. But we paid. My reasoning was, it's a photography magazine, and if a photography magazine won't respect photographers enough to pay them for their work, who will?
And finally, for Lam, there was one last indignity. (As the saying goes, friends don't let friends sell microstock....)
(Thanks to Stephen Gillette, and Dan Hood and Derick Hingle from Model Mayhem)
Featured Comment by Steve S.: "Mike, I do a lot of iStockphoto stuff. I make several thousand dollars a year—not enough to live on, but a nice side business and I can use the money right now.... Sometimes I put a lot of effort into a shot and it never pays back, but I also do a lot of work with my scanner. I have a scan of a cocktail napkin that took me maybe two minutes to do and upload to iStockphoto...I think that one shot has earned me about $300. Way more than the time I put into it! I love microstock, it's easy to upload and my images have been earning money for many years...."
Featured Comment by Stefan Zemp: "I would assume that it was a deliberate decision to use a cheap (microstock) photo for that cover—to show the new frugality."
Mike replies: That's what I assumed at first, maybe only because it's just the sort of thing I might do. But as you can read in the next post, Ken Jarecke thinks it's a symptom of a much deeper malaise, and he's in a better position to know.
Featured Comment by Dirck Halstead: "For most of my 29-year contract with Time, which ended in 2000, the going rate for a 'pickup' cover either from an agency or from an assigned take was $1750. However, any 'commissioned' cover from the Art Director was at least $5,000 plus expenses. FYI, the Monica photograph paid $7,500 for the cover. I had shot it while already on assignment for Time."
Ken Jarecke adds: The blog format makes it appear that I'm directly contradicting Dirck in the post that appears above this one. Actually, that post was written before Dirck's "featured comment" appeared here.
For the record, I take Dirck completely at his word. I can very well believe that the cover rate that I and others of my generation received was $1000 less than what they offered the contract photographers of the previous generation.