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Interview with a Licensing Expert

NAME:  Ellen Boughn

JOB TITLE/OCCUPATION:   Expert Witness (Photography), Photographic Licensing and Copyright Appraiser, Industry Consultant as pertains to Commercial Stock Photo Licensing 

PROFESSION/INDUSTRY:   The business side of Photography

EDUCATION & CREDENTIALS:   B.A., Zoology, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO; Certificate, Executive Management, Anderson School of Management, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST:  Author (Microstock Money Shots), Professional Blogger



A degree in zoology doesn’t have much to do with photography, but those who study animals have to develop a keen eye for details. The ability to see the trees in the forest is useful in any pursuit that demands attention to detail. A biologist is sometimes called on to be a detective:  What animal is it? What is its lifecycle?  And in the course of their research use the tools they’ve been given in order to find the information they need to answer those questions. Today we all do research and are constantly in need of research and investigative skills.


I had wanted to study animal behavior since my late teens—I felt that I understood animals better than people. After I graduated, I discovered that field of biology was enthralled with biochemistry and DNA So I worked in a virology lab for a year and then taught high school biology and even did some writing for Jacques Cousteau and others. The opportunities in biology related professions, however, required graduate work and I wanted to get involved in something more creative.  So at 32, I started my own business.  Having a degree that required me to learn the Linnaeus System of scientific names for plants and animals turned out to be excellent training when I started a photo agency and needed to be able to categorize, file and ultimately find over 450,000 photos (prior to computers).


Completing the yearlong program in executive management from the Andersen School at UCLA came about as I realized that the company that I founded, After-Image, had outgrown my ability to manage it. All entrepreneurs ultimately need to turn to professional managers. I sought out the UCLA program because it fit with my schedule and was from a world-class management school. The program was the best educational decision I ever made—understanding how to manage a creative business is vital and it gave me the additional tools I needed.





I had no experience as a photo editor or in business when I started the LA photo agency, After-Image. But while working in New York as a writer/senior editor on a book project for Cousteau, I noticed that the budget for stock photos exceeded that for writers and I had an “a-ha” moment. I returned to California and started a stock photo agency. Jane Kinne who was the President of Photo Researchers, now known as Science Source, provided photographs from their New York photo files for my LA clients when I had no photos to speak of. She encouraged me to go forward and that gave me the confidence to do so.


My parents instilled in me a belief that the key to a good life was to stay out of debt and to honor all obligations. Because of those traits I was a trusted agent for photographers’ stock licensing businesses. Trust is the basis of a successful business that handles the money of others. The ‘stay out of debt’ part was partially a hindrance as I never thought to get a loan to grow the business.  Had I done so, it would have been much more valuable when I sold it.  That said, my sweat equity paid off very well when it did sell.





The traditional stock licensing business took 60 years to mature—from the 1930’s until the 1990’s. This was the business that restricted licensing of photos for editorial and commercial use by geographical area, type of use, size, placement, etc. In 1991 a new licensing model was creating in response to a development in technology. A company called Photodisc used the emerging CD/DVD technology as a delivery system for stock photos, creating ‘royalty free’ photos. Once a customer bought a CD of 100 or so photos, they could use them for anything with very few restrictions. In 2004 a company called Shutterstock was formed and based its business on the micropayment/subscription royalty free model, such that a client could purchase a subscription for a nominal fee and download photos for a month or longer for a single licensing fee. This was the birth of the subset of royalty free licensing of images, called microstock.


Microstock began cannibalizing the traditional rights managed and the royalty free businesses immediately. Those photographers who got in early made fortunes and even though many were initially amateurs, some of them made more money than the traditional photographers who initially turned their noses up at microstock. Shutterstock was only one of the microstock companies; iStock photo, Dreamstime and Fotolia were part of the explosion of microstock. Today Foap, Stipple, Imagebrief, EyeEm and others are monetizing stock photos in even more innovative ways. Following the lead of others in the streaming content world, Getty Images has made millions of photos free as embedded downloads for non commercial web-sites.


As thousands and thousands of amateurs were entering the stock photo microstock world, I wrote a book to assist them in making photographs that the market would embrace—Microstock Money Shots: Turning Downloads into Dollars with Microstock Photography.


Though I still counsel photographers on issues related to stock photography, I have transitioned most of my business to something that I have always had a great interest in: the legal aspects of licensing images. Currently, I spend most of my time engaged as an expert witness and appraiser of the value of licensing revenue from existing photography.



In photography, the creative eye is and always will remain key. On the image side, the most important trait is now related to all things digital: the web, social media and video. Business skills set the talented creative person apart and ahead of the crowd. Finally photographers and others in commercial creative industries must become good business people, understand copyright and the contracts that they sign.





I’m on the advisory board of the Northwest College of Art and Design in Poulsbo, Washington. I was initially invited to join the board when the school decided to offer photography as a major. After a year or so, I encouraged them to drop that major, in light of the above described changes, in favor of making it part of another major…including video. There is no storage of stock photography in today’s world. What is needed are curators.





Ellen Boughn has been involved as an expert witness in matters relating to licensing of the reproduction rights to images for over 20 years. Boughn’s initial expert witness assignment was in the 1990′s when she prepared a report and testified as an expert witness in a matter relating to photographs that had allegedly been taken during the assassination of Robert Kennedy.Her first appraisal assignment was in the same time period, preparing an appraisal of the George Hurrell Estate Collection of photographs for tax purposes.


Her career in photography began in Los Angeles as founder of the creative photo agency, After-Image. She was responsible for all legal and contract matters with both photographers and licensees as well as being the creative head of the agency. She sold the company to the U.K. business, Tony Stone Images (now part of Getty Images), becoming president of Tony Stone/LA.


Leaving Stone after three years, she successfully marketed and sold the digital rights of the Horace Bristol Archive to Corbis Images. Corbis hired her as it’s first Executive Editor responsible for advertising and commercial images. She also served as Interim Director of Sales (Licensing). Subsequent to the Corbis experience, Ellen built three more collections for different licensing companies, twice from inception, responsible for all contracts and licensing documents in addition to recruitment and writing technical requirements for the company websites.


Since then she has performed collection appraisals as they related to the future licensing value of copyrighted work or the value of unauthorized uses as well as preparing expert reports on the same subjects. She has been deposed many times.


Boughn  is most often engaged as an expert witness to determine the licensing value of images involved in unauthorized use cases or to value future income due to loss or damage but has also prepared reports on patents that relate to the licensing of intellectual property over the Internet.


Boughn has excellent writing and communication skills. She is a published author and frequent lecturer. She acts as a consultant to individual photographers as well as to both licensee and licensors.


Graduating from Colorado College (Zoology) and from the UCLA Anderson School’s Executive Program in 1985, Boughn has attended many continuing education seminars, classes and courses. She is a member of the Northwest College of Art and Design Advisory Board. Is a member of PACA (Digital Image Licensing Association) and ASPP (American Society of Picture Professionals) and has attended the Congress of European Picture Agencies (CEPIC) over a dozen times. Her appraisals follow USPAP (Seattle 2008) guidelines. Ellen has been retained by law firms both small and large, on both coasts and in between, as well as for European and Canadian Plaintiffs and Defendants.


She is based on Bainbridge Island, WA in the Seattle area.


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