The rise of stock imagery has led to falling rates for professional photography, owing to market saturation, unwise marketing strategies, the internet and amateurs, says Betsy Reid, formerly founding executive director of the Stock Artists Alliance.
Betsy Reid was founding executive director of the Stock Artists Alliance, and led the organisation's advocacy and education efforts from 2002-2009. Today she works at the Georgia Center fro Nonprofits as senior manager of strategic communications.
From the mid-1990s on, the stock picture industry experienced a decade of expansion and revenue growth. Fuelled by professional photography, increasing client demand and significant corporate investment, stock was a buzzing cottage industry whose time had come. Evolving from the undervalued, second-rate libraries of the 1970s and 80s, picture libraries built strong rights-managed collections by actively recruiting professionals and working closely to support and market their imagery.
For the relatively small cadre of photographers fortunate enough to find their way in, it was a heady time. Demand far outstripped supply and, with buyers limited to shopping by printed catalogue, a select group of a few thousand images in each book commanded extraordinary profitability. Photographers could make an excellent year’s pay, and were therefore highly motivated to invest in creating more. The quality and quantity of imagery repositioned stock as an alternative to commissioned photography, in turn further feeding its expansion. The partnership between agent and artist ensured that production aligned with demand, and the recession stoked the need for efficient, economic sources of photography, which eliminated production costs and ensured buyers knew what they were getting from the outset.
For photographers, the rights-managed model helped ensure that the value of a licence reflected the value of the usage, and emphasised the marketability of their imagery versus the marketability of themselves. Average fees ranged from the low hundreds for editorial rights up to thousands of dollars for some commercial licences, and the opportunity for multiple licences. The only downside was the impact on commissioned photography.
By the early 2000s, collections had moved online and, while revenues remained robust, growth slowed as the industry matured and competition increased. Stock distributors launched a host of reactionary tactics in response, including reducing royalty rates, expanding sub-distribution agreements, offering micro-level pricing to top customers and producing wholly owned collections. The net effect was the redistribution of industry revenues, with less going to the photographers and more to a widening web of distributors and aggregators.
The Stock Artists Alliance’s ongoing Investigative Shopping Project revealed these hidden, often layered, sub-distribution arrangements. Photographers who had been puzzled by surprisingly low licence fees now had an explanation; many had been unaware that the revenues they received were often a meagre single-digit share of the licence fee, rather than their contracted royalty rate. When asked directly about these practices and the lack of transparency, the company line was always the same: these deals are essentially none of your business.
SAA’s study also suggested a troubling degree of accounting errors, as most of our investigative buys failed to be reported to artists until we contacted the company after a year or more of waiting. In 2007, a controller-turned-whistleblower gave SAA internal accounting documents, alleging that one major library owed several million dollars to contributors in back royalties. The company was dismissive of the accusations but SAA contacted hundreds of artists and substantiated the claims, leading to much of the monies owed being paid.
Back in the studios, the professional photographers anxiously watched the steady decline of their royalty revenues, commonly experiencing a 30-50 percent drop over the past few years, to as much as a 90 percent drop today. Once valued contributors, they found themselves increasingly marginalised. With their trust in the distributor relationships reduced, and a loss of confidence that investments in image making would be recouped, professional photographers started to drop out. Sadly, this was the root cause behind our decision to close SAA this year. As the stakeholders have dwindled, it was no longer economically viable to run a trade group dedicated to protecting their interests. SAA will officially shut down at the end of 2011.
Straight Talk on Stock Licensing Models, a 2005 SAA white paper, addressed the shortcomings of the royalty-free model, stating, “The disconnect between price and use in royalty-free licensing becomes an increasing concern as the media mix shifts away from print and more into electronic media. By discounting electronic media uses, RF has trapped the industry into a pricing equation that undervalues licences for the growth sector of the market.”
Royalty-free licensing was simple, easy, automatic and economical for the stock industry, though, so it jumped in and focused its energy and resources there. Contributors were strong-armed into producing royalty-free imagery, and experienced a corresponding reduction in the acceptance rate of rights-managed submissions. A direct and lasting consequence was the decline in the development of fresh rights-managed imagery, and a glut of royalty-free content. Anecdotally, those who contributed to royalty-free collections mostly did not realise the distributor promises of “higher volume compensating for lower fees”. In fact, they found that royalty-free images had a shorter shelf life and far more rapid decline in rate of return. In effect, the focus on RF compensated distributors for declining revenues by taking a higher share.
From bloggers to boardrooms, most are sourcing royalty-free or microstock images. A small segment of more discerning clients remains and continues to invest in licensing rights-managed imagery: the value left in the stock business for photographers endures in these images, and these image users.
Once stock collections and submissions migrated online, the number of instantly accessible images climbed into the multi-millions – this month, one of the top libraries announced hitting the 23 million-image mark. But while it is now easy to quickly access tens of thousands of images on any subject, searching for one great image can be exasperating and fruitless. Digitisation of the stock industry has expanded access to imagery, but it also made image search a keyword-driven process rapidly overwhelmed by sheer volume.
Stock distributors also failed to establish a proper foundation for digital licences. They often simply tacked electronic use onto printed licences as an afterthought and as more transactions moved online, this undervaluation continued. It was a tragic misstep, resulting a huge loss of potential licence revenues and perpetuating the low value associated with digital image usage today.
The stock distributor community’s failure to agree a cohesive set of standards and best practices for digital image processing, particularly metadata, had just as damaging an effect. The 2006 Metadata Manifesto was SAA’s effort to focus the industry on a serious and escalating problem, because “without an industry-wide commitment to embed and preserve metadata, digital image files are effectively stripped of value and protection.”
SAA’s subsequent partnership with the US Library of Congress resulted in an extensive photo metadata education and outreach effort to photographers, distributors, and image users that lives on at www.photometadata.org. SAA also actively participated in efforts by intiating a universal licensing system to simplify and facilitate the communication and management of image rights, with dedicated industry bodies and working groups, ranging from the IPTC to the herculean efforts of the PLUS Coalition. These critical initiatives continue to progress but the stock industry has failed to coalesce with the focus needed to establish and propagate the urgently needed standards.
While the number of image users has grown exponentially with the internet, most are not professionally sourcing imagery. Among them is a shocking rate of infringing users, whose actions range from inadvertent misuse to intentional theft. According to Picscout, a leading tracking service, nine out of every 10 stock images they found online were unauthorised uses. SAA described the challenge in a 2007 white paper, Infringements of Stock Images and Lost Revenues, “With just a click and a drag, users can move a digital file from any website onto their desktop – without payment or licence. Although images sourced this way are typically low resolution, they are often good enough. High resolution is traded for an unbeatably low price – free.
“In addition to outright piracy, digital media has also increased the potential for legitimately licensed images to be used outside the scope of the original licence. Once downloaded, image files can be easily repurposed and redistributed to other users. File names are commonly changed and identifying metadata is stripped or altered, making these images vulnerable to misuse.”
In 2005, SAA engaged with Picscout in a joint study tracking a sample of rights-managed imagery represented by the top two distributors, neither of whom were using this technology at the time. Our findings suggested staggering industry losses. Since then the industry has stepped up royalty compliance efforts, generating significant revenues and increasing awareness of the consequences of infringement. Getty Images recently announced that it had acquired Picscout (for $20m).
SAA’s Infringements report observed that RF poses an even greater problem. Misuse of RF is further fuelled by a widespread misperception that a royalty-“free” licence implies unlimited use by an unlimited number of users, and the industry has been lax in enforcing even the most basic restrictions on RF licensing. Without more vigilant compliance efforts, this widespread misperception is reinforced and further fuels image theft. While greater forces are at work perpetuating a “culture of free”, the lack of respect for intellectual property has contributed both to the loss of potential licensing revenue and the devaluation of professional photography.
In early 2006, contributing editor at Wired, Jeff Howe, interviewed me for an article on a rising phenomenon about “how the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the responsibility of a specialised few.” He coined the phrase “crowdsourcing” and cited microstock photography as a prime example.
The concept of a file-sharing service with micro-pricing was developed by an entrepreneur who recognised that digital photography and online file-sharing and selling platforms had broken down the walls between users and creators. With it came the harsh recognition for picture libraries and professional photographers that they were no longer indispensable for creating and licensing images. As Howe foretold, “pain and disruption are inevitable” and it was perhaps most painful of all in the professional photography market.
The accessibility of digital cameras, coupled with the development of internet file-sharing platforms, led to hobbyists and aspiring photographers worldwide getting involved in image licensing. The pool of potential creators is ever expanding, along with a rapidly growing body of images searchable through file-sharing and microstock sites. For the microstock community, there was a rush of power at the democratisation of the stock industry. The amateur was unencumbered by the expectations and obstacles faced by professionals – working with minimal gear, mostly on a part-time basis with no history or expectations of return for their investment, any use of their images at any fee was a win. A key to motivating contributors was an engaged and enthusiastic microstock community, which celebrated the success of the model, and the rise of its micro superstars.
The “coming-of-age” moment for microstock photographers arrived when the market leader announced a dramatic reduction in contributor revenue sharing, with the ironic flourish of citing “the success of the model” as the reason for the changes. Thousands of contributors felt betrayed, flooding the contributor forum with expletives and threats. It was a wake-up call that the party was over, and that they are just as vulnerable to the desire of the distributors to increase profits at their expense.
Despite proof to the contrary, some full-time professionals still believe they are entitled to be primary image providers. It is time to stop the blame game and re-focus on the challenge – how to earn a living by making pictures. Photographers can no longer afford to hang out a shingle with the moniker “good photography at a reasonable price”. The differentiators for success are as follows: highly distinctive imagery reflecting a clear and compelling aesthetic vision, marketing savvy, sharp business skills, adaptability and persistence. Today’s professional photographer must deliver nothing less. BJP
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