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Startups battle for rights to smartphone images

The popularity of connected devices and smartphones has transformed each of us into potential news gatherers, and now a growing number of startups are offering services to connect us with media organisations

On 07 June, when Santa Monica gunman John Zawahri went on a rampage, killing his father and brother before firing on three other people near a college, CrowdMedia – a new website whose task is to filter through images posted on Twitter – was coming online for the first time. “This happened within 15 minutes of our launch,” says CEO Martin Roldan. “We were able to get the licence for the only images shot from inside the college while it was happening. The photographs were picked up by a couple of news organisations, including the Huffington Post. It showed that CrowdMedia worked.”

Based in Montreal, CrowdMedia is the latest startup in the battle for people’s pictures, as smartphone devices have transformed us all into potential press photographers, ready to transmit images of newsworthy events as they happen.

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“We built a social media monitoring tool, Ejenio, last year,” says Roldan. “It allowed businesses to monitor what people were saying about them on Twitter and Facebook. While we were working on Ejenio, we realised there were a lot of good, newsworthy images on Twitter, but media organisations often had trouble finding them and getting the rights to use them. We saw a real niche there, so we shifted our focus to photography.”

Launched in June, the platform sifts through more than 150 million social photographs posted on Twitter in real-time. Using geolocation information and keywords entered by staff, CrowdMedia selects 0.03 percent of these images which it deems newsworthy. “We input that information manually, but we’re working on tweaks to improve our algorithm, and soon the platform will be able to detect automatically when something happens around the world, and search for relevant images,” explains Roldan.

“The beauty of it is that, unlike other startups relying on mobile apps that users have to install in the first place, our audience and user base is already there. When we find a newsworthy image, the platform automatically sends a tweet to the user, who just has to click on a link to confirm that the photograph is his and whether he accepts to sell it for half of the proceeds.”

CrowdMedia sells a non-exclusive licence for $20, whatever the image’s content. “After 48 hours, that price goes down to $5 because we are only interested in what is happening in real time,” Roldan explains. “We are aware that $20 is a low figure and this has been the only criticism we have received so far. Of course, we’re listening to what people are saying. But it might be that it’s the right kind of pricing and that people are just not used to that. When an event has global reach, like the recent plane crash in San Francisco, images of the scene can be sold more than 1000 times at a $20 price tag. The copyright owner could easily make $10,000.”

Yet, Roldan explains, “there are still a lot of things we have to learn in the coming months. We need to look at what needs to be improved, which is normal when you’re developing a new platform.

“For example, we need to improve the system for media organisations and publishers, especially providing proof of authenticity. We’re in the process of building this to offer authenticity ratings for each image.” But Roldan insists CrowdMedia offers a service that will rival established press agencies. “We provide the same type of images as agencies, but we have fewer restrictions, no lengthy contracts and no negotiations.”

With a conversion rate of 23 percent who accept the terms, Roldan is ecstatic. “I’ve worked for internet companies a long time, and this type of number is impressive. I think that’s because people understand what we’re doing. We’re not spamming them – we’re only contacting people with newsworthy images and simplifying the whole selling process.”

But Roldan admits CrowdMedia faces an uphill battle with professional photographers, who see the platform as a threat to their own business. “In the coming months, we will launch something that is dedicated to them,” he says. “We want them to have a privileged access to the platform and to the different media organisations that use CrowdMedia. But at the moment we’re not ready for them.”

While CrowdMedia has the advantage of using Twitter’s user base – it is backed by a Twitter executive – it still faces an uphill battle to compete against dozens of competitors that have, in recent months, launched a similar service. The most recent one is Clashot, which was introduced at South by Southwest in Austin last March.

Created by Depositphotos, a microstock agency, Clashot works via an iPhone app that lets users take images and build ‘photo reports’ that are uploaded to the Clashot website. “The most newsworthy photos taken with Clashot are for sale in the Editorial section of Depositphotos, where they can be found, reviewed and acquired by news agencies, website owners and publishing houses all over the world,” says CEO Elena Flanagan-Eister. “Our goal is to change the approach to how relevant, fresh content is delivered to customers. We want every smartphone user to get the reward he or she deserves for what is captured, as well as to have a chance to be recognised as a popular photographer.”

Foap offers a similar service, allowing smartphone users to sell their images on its platform. Launched in June last year, the app sells images for $10, which is then split 50-50 with the user. Foap co-founder David Los says his business has grown unexpectedly rapidly.

“We first launched in the UK but decided quickly to launch globally. We got featured on television by CNN and the BBC, and the servers couldn’t handle all the traffic. Since we’ve launched, we have introduced a new platform called Foap Missions, where companies can post branded photo missions to our community to build their own image libraries.”

The goal, says Los, is to provide brands with natural-looking, user-generated images that can be used on social media networks, for example. “It’s a win-win for everyone: the users get engaged and rewarded, while the brands get the marketing content they need. It’s a great way of saying thanks to their most loyal fans. Today we have brands such as Puma, Lavazza and many more on board.”

In spite of the increased competition (EyeEm, the European equivalent of Instagram, recently said it would introduce its own marketplace to link users with media organisations) Foap’s founder is confident. “We believe that the combination of great content, simple pricing, licensing and product, as well as our strong sales team, makes us unstoppable,” he enthuses. “In the end it’s about shipping great stuff and being passionate about what we do.

“We are funded, we have the right people on board and we have a highly engaged community of photographers located all over the world.”

Of course, Los admits, the industry is changing quickly. “One year in this industry is equivalent to 10 years in others, and God knows what type of game-changing cameras and phones we will have in five years,” he adds.

For Clashot’s Flanagan-Eister, this new marketplace could also lead to a new licensing system for mobile content that will be more clear for sellers and buyers alike.