May 3, 2011
The parallels between the photographic industry and farming aren’t as obscure as you might think.
Imagine Getty are the Tesco/Asda/Sainsburys of the picture world, where the suppliers of the produce they sell have little control over the price they’re paid for their goods, regardless of the cost of production.
There are only so many outlets for farmer photographers, owned by some very powerful businesses that will set the selling price to wherever they think they need to in order to gain market share and make a profit.
I mention profit, but I’m not sure if Getty (who also own iStockphoto) are in profit for their stock photo portfolio of businesses, and reliable figures seem elusive, but they’re certainly good at spending whatever money they have on expansion plans.
One advantage farmers have over photographers is that they are paid for their produce by the wholesalers or retailers who then sell it on for a profit, while stock photographers give their work to the libraries for free in return for a commission, but only if a photo sells. And a photo might never sell, or might only sell for a few pence, of which the photographer might get a few pennies.
By way of leaving the farming analogy to one side, I’d like to say I have the utmost respect for farmers and I’m glad they do a job many of us couldn’t cope with.
The news that Getty have now acquired the Australian stock image library Photolibrary, close after the announcement that they’ve also acquired image-tracking firm PicScout, means Getty are still aggressively expanding and consolidating their business, but you won’t see photographers jumping for joy and I think in time neither will picture buyers be especially delighted.
Getty will want to see a return on their investments, so it may be we can expect them to switch the PicScout phaser from stun to kill as they target image infringers and recoup their money through either higher or more numerous payment demands.
As for their buying up yet another image library, what possible advantage is there to a business or a designer that they can now choose from an even larger library of the same old same old? Surely once you’ve seen one sterile business picture, you’ve seen them all. Getty can’t claim to have extended buyer’s choice any more than Heinz can claim to have extended our choice of baked beans by making more tins of the same beans.
It also appears that Getty are looking to turn the screws once again on their contributing photographers by introducing terms that mean Getty will be able to move images from Rights Managed to Royalty Free licensing, with no mechanism for contributors to opt-out of such a scheme. This leaves contributors with less control over how their images are used and the prices set. For buyers, it will mean even less exclusivity, making stock imagery even less attractive than it already is.
That final point probably explains the rise in enquiries I’m getting from businesses that are wanting to break free from the herd and be noticed (back to farming!), but I’d rather Getty used less aggressive tactics anyway because they don’t reflect well on the industry as a whole.
It’ll be interesting to see where all this activity leads. If Getty want to take a lion’s share of the market with a view to pushing up stock image prices, they may find this is a very long game indeed. I’m sure they have a plan, but in this world of over-supply and finite demand, it’ll have to be a very cunning plan or a game with infinite budget.
UPDATE: ASMP makes thinly-veiled suggestion to American photographers that if they contribute to Getty, they should consider other means of distributing their images (in other words, quitting Getty). More at PDN.
January 4, 2011
If you’re on Twitter, you’ll know what I mean when I say that some new follows can be a little odd and surprising. Take my recently acquired new follower @BoycottGetty as an example.
At first glance I was hopeful that this was a new movement formed from designers disillusioned with the banality of stock imagery; a return to the values of using real images of real people for truly interesting design. URR! URR! WRONG!
It turns out @BoycottGetty is an anonymous twitterer with an equally opaque identity at an online petition hosting site (see Boycott Getty Images!) with a mission to get Getty Images to change their approach to dealing with people who, wittingly or otherwise, use Getty-managed photos without paying for them. Quite why they’d want to follow me, I can’t work out.
Boycott Getty Images (BGI) don’t like the current tactics used by Getty to chase copyright infringers because they feel they’re too belligerent. This may be so, and I’m no fan of Getty or its micro-payment subsidiary iStockphoto (anyone who has followed my blog for a while will know I don’t much like stock photography in general), but the alternative solutions suggested by BGI make no sense, unless one assumes that the person or people behind BGI have been caught using unlicensed Getty images and are a tad hacked off at being asked to pay up.
Let’s look at a summary of what BGI are demanding, then you’ll see what a nonsense his/her/their campaign is. From BGI’s petition website:
“This petition demands that Getty Images immediately cease its highly unethical extortion practice before another innocent US citizen is intentionally harmed, and announce the implementation of new copyright protection technologies & business practices that are consumer friendly, protect their photographers copyrights and benefit the general public at large.”
The petition sets out these points more fully on the site, but this is a pretty good precis of the thrust of their arguments, so let’s unpick what they’re saying here.
For one thing, I suspect the author of this petition decided to remain anonymous due to the “legally dancing on thin ice” nature of the opening sentence. Using phrases like “unethical extortion” and “intentionally harmed” strikes me as dangerous, considering how readily Getty likes to threaten legal action, but perhaps they’ll let this go as the angry ramblings of an irrelevant campaigner with an axe to grind.
The author mentions the “implementation of new copyright protection technologies,” but as of the writing of this blog article no such technologies exist, and even in the paragraph dedicated to this point the author doesn’t seem to know what these technologies might be. Furthermore any technologies that do exist are useless once a paying client has bought, unlocked and published a photo on their website. From thenceforth the photo is subject to the same copy and paste problems as any other image on the internet. Getty would still have to search out and demand redress for images used without payment.
BGI demands that Getty adopt business practices which are consumer friendly. Does that mean like making millions of photos available at penny prices for anyone who wants to legally buy them? Or are they seriously suggesting Getty should stop demanding payments from people who steal their assets?
And here’s a contradiction; BGI wants Getty to “protect their photographers copyrights.” They say they don’t know if the compensation moneys collected by Getty from infringers is shared with the photographers, but firstly I suspect it is and secondly it’s not any of BGI’s business. That’s between Getty and its contributors. What they actually call for is wider use of Take Down notices, which would mean photographers get nothing for the infringing use of their photos, except the hassle of having to deal with infringements. No protection there then.
This final point is quite strange: “benefit the general public at large.” Ignoring the tautology in that sentence, is Getty Images some kind of humanitarian organisation now? What other corporate giants should we demand general public (at large) benefits from? Microsoft? Walmart? The Zimbabwean government under Robert Mugabe? Dream on, Sunshine.
Although the Boycott Getty Images name seems misleading in that it doesn’t directly boycott the buying of Getty images (just their issuing of legal letters), the site is linked to www.zyra.info which is campaigning for people to avoid using Getty-licensed images altogether. I’d applaud this concept except that the alternative ideas put forward on that site are nuttier than squirrel shit.
So to @BoycottGetty, I say sorry, but I won’t be following you back. Your ideas make as much sense as a pocketful of baked beans, and this weakens your case considerably. You’re welcome to follow me though. You might learn something useful.
November 16, 2010
Photography on the internet is so pervasive that we take it for granted. But it’s worth remembering, it wasn’t always thus, and need not necessarily ever have been so at all had it not been for parallel developments. A potted history:
In the very early days of the web, most of what you saw was text-based. Then came porn. Then came interactive Web 2.0 when you could upload your own content, and BAM! Photos absolutely everywhere. More porn than you could shake a pink stick at. More photos of kittens, sunsets and dandelions than you can find grains of sand on the beach. In fact, for every star in the Milky Way, scientists believe there are at least 16 photos of orange-faced, bleach-toothed, American executives sitting in the Getty/iStockphoto archives right now, and this figure is set to double by 2020. OK, I made that up, but believe me there are a lot of photos on the web now. A lot of them of men in suits standing randomly in a field.
But for there to be photos on the web, there had to be some way of capturing photographic images digitally, and here’s quite a coincidence.
Around 20-odd years ago, someone built a machine which allowed press photographers to turn their processed film negatives into a digitised version which could then be transmitted over phone lines from anywhere with electricity and a phone connection. The (extremely expensive) machines were built into a sort of suitcase, weighed a ton and the whole process from scanning to delivering a single digital file took about an hour, not including the processing of the film. You needed a jamboy to keep insects out of the workings.
Then came portable film scanners and Apple Macs, which replaced the old suitcases. Then came Kodak with the first digital film backs for press cameras and the ball really got rolling. By now (circa mid-1990s) you started to see photographers shooting photos on fully-integrated digital cameras and transmitting photos from their laptops, via mobile phones back to the picture desk.
For consumers, compact cameras started to hit the market, with giddying resolutions of 800,000 pixels, and costing upwards of £450, but the die was cast. Canon developed their own digital SLRs, hotly pursued by Nikon, pixel wars followed and here we are today. Film is almost extinct, but digital cameras have coincided perfectly with the advances of web technology.
The two were made for each other. People love taking pictures, and they love boring their friends and complete strangers with them, so the internet is the perfect way to self-publish. Everyone wants to be a photographer now, many people think they are and supply their photos of autumn leaves and rainbows to the likes of Getty for a fat 8p fee for each photo sold, or they share them for free on sites like flickr, where unscrupulous web designers and bloggers can trawl for photos in the hope they won’t get caught when they nick them for websites.
And this is where the marriage between the internet and photography is getting shaky. You see professional photographers and the likes of Getty have always known the value of copyright, whereas most people have ventured, utterly un-prepared, into the arena of taking and publishing photos with precious little inkling of the meaning of copyright.
Any idiot can give a photo away for free, but getting paid a respectable fee for supplying a photo, well that’s a black art. An art which Getty et al wished professional photographers didn’t know so much about, and are thankful most amateurs don’t understand. Because if Getty, Google, Corbis, Facebook, flickr (whoever, you get the gist) could make money out of all the “free” photos on the web, they’d be laughing all the way to the Canary Islands for a very comfy retirement.
Unfortunately for internet entrepreneurs, not only do professional photographers understand the value of copyright, but the general public are starting to twig too and are asking questions like “why did I wear my camera out taking 40,000 photos of butterflies, and all you pay me is some copper pennies and a half-eaten Werther’s Original?”
This marriage is starting to strain, and there could be some shouting, door slamming and plate smashing to come as the UK and US governments come under pressure to re-jig copyright laws so that web entrepreneurs (sometimes flatteringly referred to as freetards) can start exploiting everyone’s photos without all the bother of having to ask permission, let alone pay for what they want.
The next year or so will be critical to this fledgling marriage between the web and digital technology. The offspring of this unsteady alliance might turn out to be the bastard son of a badly re-drawn piece of legislation, and all the fun of the web will be replaced by sad bickering, litigation and exploitation. Suddenly I’m craving a roll of film.
This article was originally published as a guest blog on the ECRM website.
September 13, 2010
I was hoping to ignore the insane ramblings of the micro-payment stock photo community for a while, but then this happened:
It’s finally dawned on someone at iStockphoto that although it should be easy enough to make a profit from selling something you’re given for free, really it’s a lot harder than it looks (poor diddums). But for anyone who missed it, here is the signed confession from the boss of iStockphoto, Kelly Thompson:
“Since roughly 2005 we’ve been aware of a basic problem with how our business works. As the company grows, the overall percentage we pay out to contributing artists increases. In the most basic terms that means that iStock becomes less profitable with increased success. As a business model, it’s simply unsustainable: businesses should get more profitable as they grow. This is a long-term problem that needs to be addressed.”
The answer? To kick contributors in the teeth by lowering percentage payouts, which will work out as little as 11p per image sold, and to move the goal posts to make it harder for contributors to sell enough photos to graduate to the higher percentage payouts. Nice!
What Thompson is saying is that microstock simply isn’t viable as a model for selling photography. Ignore the reference he makes to percentages, they don’t change just because the business grows. It’s just that the costs of running such a scheme are too high – storage, admin, quality checking, maintenance. Rather as the model for supplying images to micro-payment stock sites isn’t viable – equipment, software, storage, maintenance…
I won’t go over the entire mess here, even though it would be exquisite fun. Instead I’ll point you to Jeremy Nicholl’s excellent post on the original announcement, and the iStockphoto contributor forum where you can indulge yourself in hundreds of pages of iHate from its own contributors here, here and here.
What I do wonder though, is now that the True Followers of the iStock dream are waking up from their torpor, what’s next? Many on the forum talk of leaving iStockphoto, and many may leave stock photography altogether as they realise the difficulty of making it pay and the costs involved in participating. Could a mass exodus to other sites or out of the industry affect prices for buyers? Could it cause problems with licensing across different agencies if contributors switch their collections? My feeling is most will sit tight and wait for the next round of abuse as the new model fails to raise enough profit for iStock’s owners.
And will the lower-end designers start to desert iStockphoto and other exploitative sites if they see fellow creatives being hurt? I suspect not, because if micro-stock sites get too expensive they’ll switch to other methods – a bit of Grand Theft Flickr, or Google Images larceny. The problem is, too many people have been told that photography is cheap, and despite all the evidence to the contrary they’ll continue to expect what they’ve grown accustomed to.
What might happen (and is already starting to happen in my professional experience) is that the better designers and their clients will eschew microstock, or at least treat it more as a last resort. After all, if its reputation as exploitative and unsustainable is really starting to gain traction, would you want your business to be associated with that?
November 6, 2009
Photography is everywhere, but nowhere is it more prolific than on the internet, where it is sprayed over web sites like candy from a smashed piñata, often with no thought to quality, relevance or placement. It’s just a way to break up text, and the general approach is that the cheaper this can be done, the better.
Of course the internet is a visual medium; nobody relishes reading acres of dense text, and the interspersion of text with pictures is more pleasing to the eye, but the over-use of low-cost stock imagery means that the images have become almost invisible, and their impact is lost.
The easy availability of this low-cost imagery on the web has caused another problem. Businesses, usually unknowingly, are using the same imagery as their competitors. This often happens because web designers will resort to using micro-stock sites such as istockphoto to source images, using the same search terms for similar clients. The result is a kind of Stepford Wives look to sites across the web and businesses look indistinguishable from their competitors.
If the imagery a business uses doesn’t set it apart from its competitors, what is the value of that imagery? What power will the images have to entice the prospective client to spend money with one business over another?
This ubiquity of imagery has diluted the power of photography on the web, but this isn’t photography’s fault, nor the fault of photographers. It’s just a stage internet design is going through. A bit like stages children go through on their way to becoming adults. Internet design is at the spotty teenager stage. It’s not pretty, not always useful around the house, and doesn’t know what it wants to be. However, this apparently ugly scenario can be made to work in favour of businesses who want to retake the initiative.
What businesses can do, and from my recent experiences are starting to do, is commission more bespoke photography and use less non-exclusive stock imagery. They’re presenting themselves as real businesses with real people, not the West Coast American-looking androids favoured by stock libraries for their blandness and interchangeability. Putting a genuine face to the public instead of hiding behind a sterilized façade means photography can be powerful again.
Designers I speak to are also starting to realise that their wonderful designs tend to lose impact once the generic stock images are plonked in, or they’re having to build the design message around whichever cheap pictures they have to hand. Designers are having to learn how to sell real photography to their clients again or face their designs simply costing their clients money, instead of bringing in sales.
So as the internet emerges from its teenage years, will business once again discover the power of genuine, bespoke photography? In the days of the printed brochure, you rarely had to suffer seeing photos taken by the boss’s nephew, and businesses paid good money to keep their identity unique from their competitors. As the internet goes from teenage to adulthood, so business web sites must mature into truly professional platforms for marketing, not just concentrating on site structure, graphics and text but the imagery too. Those that embrace exclusive imagery will find the extra investment creates a greater return.
It isn’t easy to shoehorn all these concepts into a blog, but if you would like to know more about how genuinely unique photography could help your business, drop me a line. Maybe I can help get your business through puberty relatively unscarred by acne.
Article and photos © Tim Gander. All rights reserved 2009