Magnum Photos readies paid-for online membership platform

Magnum Photos is planning the launch of a membership scheme in a bid to capitalise on its social media communities while reducing the financial burdens associated with the copyright infringement of its pictures

Olivier Laurent — 30 September 2013

Magnum Photos

Faced with a changing market in which photographers’ copyrights are more insecure than ever in the mist of an increasingly visually aware and virtually connected society, Magnum Photos is six months away from launching a membership initiative that will allow the 66-year-old photography collective to build a community of paying supporters,BJP has been told.

The move comes 15 months after Magnum unveiled a new website that did away with watermarks. Speaking to BJP in September last year, Clément Saccomani, Magnum’s editorial director in Paris, explained that Magnum was trying to make it easier for “fans” to talk to and promote the agency. “We launched a new website that shows images with a width of 900 pixels, without any watermarks. If you right-click on them, you can download them. When I was talking with Chris Anderson and Jonas Bendiksen, they were telling me that if visitors just wanted to print an image and put it on their fridge, they could do it.”

He added: “There’s no point trying to protect ourselves from the sea with sandcastles. Trying to prevent people from downloading images will not stop them – they will still find a way to download them and print them. Instead, what we can tell them is this: ‘If you want these images, come and get them, but from our own website. Then, have a look around and maybe you’ll find something else that’s interesting.’ In the past, the only way you could gain access to an image was by buying a book or visiting an exhibition or gallery. The problem is that not everyone is wealthy enough to buy a work of art. Instead, we can offer something else for them – a way to share our images, for example. And that will not necessarily affect our print sales.”

The ultimate goal, Magnum’s CEO Giorgio Psacharopulo told BJP last year, is to create a dialogue with the audience. “We have to use technology to our advantage, and Web 2.0 is an opportunity. It allows us to interact directly with a community of people interested in our brand. I think we are reaching people who are not just interested in our images, but also who relate to the social issues we cover.”

Now Magnum is planning to expand on these efforts with the launch of a new online platform that will allow Magnum’s more than 800,000 social followers to pay for membership to a sort of ‘Friends of Magnum’ community, explains Massimo Moggi, Magnum’s head of licensing and technology in New York. The new platform will also allow the agency to address the issue of copyright infringement.

“The photography world has changed,” he tells BJP. “Everyone is a photographer now. This concept has turned the business model of photography upside down. In the past, it was a business model based on the leverage of rights to the business-to-business world. We were selling rights to that B2B world. [The other model] is to sell prints to the art market. So, photo agencies have to change their role, otherwise they can’t survive,” especially, he adds, since the number of its images used illegally has risen exponentially in recent years. “There are different types of illegal use. There are bloggers, people who like photography; there’s the professional world, people who don’t want to pay for images; and there are institutions and schools, which are using images to teach. What can we do?”

Speaking at an IdeasTap event in July, photographer and Magnum member Abbas explained that the agency had “collectively” decided to pursue for-profit institutions, but that it would consider the use of their images by individual bloggers as “legitimate”, as reported by Rachel Segal Hamilton of IdeasTap on its website.

The goal, says Moggi, is now to encourage infringers – especially individual bloggers who are not generating a profit out of Magnum’s images – to support the agency financially. “We want to turn these bloggers into a community. So we’re going to launch a new membership [scheme] in the next six months. We will ask them to pay between $20 and $40 [a year] to be a part of this membership, and in return they will receive discounts on books, they will be able to participate in dedicated events, they will receive signed books at the price of non-signed ones, they will be able to participate in portfolio reviews, or receive a call from one of our photographers. They will belong to a sort of ‘Friends of Magnum’ group and will have access to a series of benefits. Some of them will be physical, others virtual.

“We are going to write to the bloggers and say: ‘Listen, you are illegally using our images. We know it’s not for commercial purposes, but it’s still illegal. If you want to clean your position, you just have to participate in this Magnum membership.’ We know that in many cases these bloggers will remove the images without any further action. But we expect [a conversion rate] of around 25 to 30 percent. These are big numbers.” Asked whether these individual bloggers will be allowed to continue using Magnum’s images, Moggi answers: “I would say yes.”

He continues: “In the end, we are transforming these guys who used to download our images illegally into a new community. We believe we can make money with this community, and then we are going to pursue the other guys. They will receive letters that say, ‘You have to pay.’”

Magnum will also promote the membership scheme to its more than 800,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. “We have 387,000 ‘Likes’ on Facebook, while Getty Images has 77,000, VII Photo has 31,000, The New York Times has 76,000 and Time magazine has 100,000,” Moggi tells BJP. “We have more likes than all of these guys brought together. We have a monthly reach of 5.3 million, with 16 million impressions per month. We have a massive reach [that we can leverage].”

[Editor's note: While Lightbox, Time's photo blog, has 118,000 followers on Facebook, the magazine's official account has more than 1.5m. Similarly, Lens, The New York Times' photojournalism section, has more than 83,000 likes, with the newspaper's main account gathering more than 3.7m more]

Inspiration for the scheme comes from the sports industry, says Moggi, where football clubs have been able to financially leverage their fans through similar membership schemes, and already Magnum has run tests in Italy on the Blackberry 10 platform, offering users the opportunity to download screensavers and other virtual goods. “But we are just at the beginning,” says Moggi, who expects the new membership platform to launch in 2014.