Each time they acquire a new stock agency, they gain certain electronic rights for that agency’s photos. They also take steps to gain the right to digitally combine those images with other images in their files, by use of a waiver clause in their contracts with photographers.
Photographers who are not aware of what they are signing can inadvertently waive the attributions and integrity rights to a single photo or group of photos.
The mathematics of this process are ingenious. Not only do the Big 3 acquire new companies and new images, but an exponential expansion of certain of those images, whose copyright can become their property, according to current Copyright interpretation.
As we move into the Digital Age of photography, this new genre of photo is emerging. It has not arrived on main-street-digital yet — but we see prototypes of it in print ads and especially on TV.
I call this the Kaleidoscope Strategy. (Remember the tube toy you used to raise to the sky and then marveled at the changing myriad images as you turned the tube?) In terms of arithmetic, it goes like this: Any one of The Big 3 select five of their waivered pictures, digitize them, combine elements from the five into a variety of 25 new pictures, each substantially different from the original (green sky on this one, a small tree from that one, a vintage automobile from this one, etc.) and presto! You have a completely different mood, expression, and feeling to each new photo -and none are recognizable as any of the five original pictures.
Photographers who have signed contracts with the Big 3, signed in good faith expecting their pictures to continue to belong to them. Their original contracts may discuss not altering their original photos, but never mention extracting parts of an image to produce a new image of separate copyright. Some “work for hire” contracts, for example, stipulate “we retain usage rights in any medium now known or hereinafter developed for no additional payment.” As you can see, the photographer loses control of his/her picture when it is combined with parts of other photographers’ images.