Deep Domain Experience Weighs In
Have photographs lost their economic value? One might make that case by connecting the dots, from photo agency consolidation and the transition from film to digital image capture, the conjunction of crowd-sourcing with the World Wide Web and social media, to underserved publishers and the sorry circumstances that challenge photographers who try to earn a living.
The good news is that photography (both still & video) remains vital to every aspect of commerce. Business needs photography. Its demand is both enduring and universal. Living, breathing photographers are in no danger of being replaced by AI or computer-generated graphics because, if it were even plausible to supplant cameras and lenses entirely with algorithms, the mind’s eye of a photographer would still have to invent and code the imagery. CGI is just a twenty-first-century photo accessory.
The value of original photography, including the value of the people who produce it, is unequivocal for commercial brands and media companies that publish pictures to inform and connect with their own customers. However, it is increasingly hard for them to find commercially useful pictures. It should therefore be clear that the economic issues confronting photographers are directly related to issues of utility facing publishers. The question should be, Is photography underpriced?
Shutterstock and Adobe, the two publicly-traded companies engaged in photo distribution, agree it’s underpriced. So do their privately-held competitors; mostly startups but including giant Getty Images. Public records uphold that assertion. And to their dismay, they have all been unable to raise prices substantively. Despite combined sales in the billions of dollars, revenue has been flat for a decade.
These companies swap revenue back and forth with each other like squeezing air in a balloon. If one earns more, the others earn proportionally less, and vice versa. They’re all vying for market share, unable to grow the overall size of the market. They can’t raise prices because buyers complain about poor-quality content; and they can’t increase quality because the prices they charge, constrained by their own business model, are too low to attract better content. Money is left on the table that buyers are willing to pay for dynamically replenished, professionally produced photographs.
Who Am I to Say?
I studied classical music at the University of Southern California before pivoting to photojournalism. I’ve covered hundreds of historical and breaking news events published in major periodicals worldwide. I’ve shot hundreds of portraits, including magazine covers from John Lennon to Steve Jobs plus two sitting American presidents (Carter and Reagan) for the covers of Time and Fortune. I’ve also shot advertising campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood movie studios, and the US Navy.
My career-long body of work, shot on film, was acquired for conservation and academic research by the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. My portrait prints are collected by museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
I created PhotoByte®, the first successful CRM/licensing-and-billing software for commercial photographers. And I wrote the book, literally, about the business of photography: Photography: Focus on Profit (Allworth Press, 2002). It has been used to teach at colleges across the country.
I founded a venture-funded startup during the “dotcom bubble” and, more recently, was accepted into the StartX collaborative community of startups affiliated with Stanford University.
I was also represented (consecutively) by two preeminent international photo agencies, Sygma and Gamma-Liaison, until they were acquired in the 1990s by Corbis and Getty Images respectively. I went to great lengths to remove all of my physical film and all digital traces of my work from these two online exchanges. Despite my having forbidden them to further license my work, I discovered they were still doing so — for insulting and paltry fees. Over the years, I received very small checks in the mail from Getty Images for photographs I did not shoot.
I wrote a book about all this years ago: Photography: Focus on Profit (Allworth Press, 2002). It is timelier today because better technology to fix a broken business is available now. By the end of this treatise, it should be clear that photography is indeed underpriced; why it is underpriced; and how underpricing adversely affects industry-wide productivity and growth. It should also be clear how to fix it.
The evidence I cite, today, stems from empirical observation; interviews with photo editors, art buyers, and creative directors; business research firms; the US Bureau of Labor; interviews with industry executives; public company shareholder reports; plus a poll I conducted with 9,500 working pro photographers. That poll yielded 1,087 responses (11.4%) and includes granular detail about their workflow practices.
You Get What You Pay For
It is not necessarily an inclination of market forces that keeps prices down. It’s because the most sought-after imagemakers in the world deliberately withhold their premium content from online sales. That, in turn, is because online photo vendors have come to rely on crowd-sourcing, which commercial photographers and their publisher clients eschew. Crowd-sourced pictures, too commonly available and much overused by too many parties, can hardly command higher prices.
Underlying that conundrum is the fact that the relationship of data to both the aggregation and pricing of imagery is missing from all discussion about the industry. In fact, the data themselves are missing. Not one company collects or analyzes transactions between commercial photographers and the publishers they shoot pictures for, despite the billions of dollars they generate in revenue each year doing business with each other. That, in large part, is what keeps better imagery off-line.
Without data, revenue will remain flat. Moreover, it has been evident for a very long time that the incumbent middlemen are incapable of building an infrastructure to capture these data without pivoting to such an extent that they would cannibalize their existing business. Not even Adobe, which touches the work of virtually every imagemaker on the planet, can capture what are essentially production data because Adobe is not involved in transactions between photographers and publishers who do business directly with each other; no middleman. It means they don’t capture marketing rights to any of the pictures either.
The business of photography is governed by an idiosyncratic back-office workflow that doesn’t so much mirror how photographers make money as define how they do it. It is the structure they rely on to conduct business , specifically with commercial publishers. Both parties are equally aware of how back-office innovation has languished throughout years of indifference while technology continued to advance on the creative side, particularly the sexier science of digital image capture. That indifference led to wholesale neglect of administrative best practices; so that today, in the twenty-first century, the business side of photography — particularly billings & payments — limps along on 1995 technology. The industry still depends on paper: Your check is in the mail.
Bear in mind, I’m not talking about the Task Rabbit or Angie’s List kind of photography; but the inspired work of commercial professionals who remain in high demand by major corporate brands and media companies.
Taking pictures is effortless.
The business of taking pictures is NOT effortless.
A Break with Tradition Put the Brakes on Revenue
Photo agencies used to represent photographers whose talents they cultivated. They also made sure that the price of a publication license for any given photograph, whether it was pre-shot or made to order, varied in accordance with its commercial value to the buyer — the publisher, and that it was balanced fairly with economic sustainability for the seller — the photographer. The agent’s role, however, was usurped years ago by private equity investors: today’s middlemen. The troubling part is that, with no prior photo-business expertise, they didn’t so much disrupt the marketplace as buy it. Then they deliberately sidestepped organic growth to exploit an obviously lucrative consumer-facing opportunity — obvious as in low-hanging fruit.
The upshot was a creeping institutional memory loss — a photographic memory loss — about the existing Enterprise market segment populated by corporate brands and media companies. The new interlopers frittered away their capacity to serve Enterprise by focusing, instead, on an emerging consumer segment and a retail business model. Its customers were freelancers, shopkeepers, startups, and very small businesses with little money to spend on photo or video production but with a need to fill an exponentially increasing number of websites with cheap pictures. In other words, the new vendors abandoned a previously established and more lucrative business to pursue only the new one because they didn’t know how to serve both.
The displacement of photo agencies with a retail-consumer model resulted in two consequences:
1) Photographers lost control over pricing their own work.
2) Publishers were flooded with lesser-quality content.
These outcomes are underscored by the spreading mediocrity of stock photos, their burgeoning overabundance yet frustrating lack of exclusivity, a sore relationship between creatives and middlemen, and the fragmentation of billions of dollars in commissioned jobs revenue.
A New Kind of Marketplace for Photography
Publishers are unhappy with stock photos in particular because photographers — who are business owners but artists temperamentally — have a hard time trying to navigate the world of commerce and shoot pictures at the same time. Because so many photographers are one-man bands, it’s even harder. They spent too much time behind a desk and not enough time behind a camera. Online workflow automation is rudimentary at best, but practically nonexistent.
A holistic approach is required to create a dynamic source of pre-shot stock photos that satisfies publishers by, first, making it easier for them to do business with the photographers they already trust to shoot made-to-order jobs.
The online integration of the stock photo workflow with the commissioned-job workflow is a new idea: one proprietary platform where creators and publishers want to be, directly connected — together — within a B2B marketplace-cum-network. It need not support retail-consumer transactions or even try to compete on that front to be enormously successful, ultimately taking market share away from Getty Images, Shutterstock, and Adobe Stock while increasing revenue throughout the industry.
Is the picture getting clearer?
Consumers are a class, an audience TARGETED by brands and media to see and be influenced by photographs that proffer either commercial or editorial messages through publication.
It is vital to understand that enthusiasts (consumers) do not create photographs for either commercial or editorial publication. What images they do create are intended for their own personal satisfaction. What photos they download, if they also happen to be freelancers or small business owners themselves, are created by other enthusiasts. And because downloads are dirt cheap, or “shared,” and used with little discretion, they are limited to trivial publication purposes at trivial prices.
Mediocrity is baked in to the Consumer segment of the Commercial Photo market because consumers can only afford to pay low prices. Consequently, middlemen, all of whom cater to this retail segment, can only make money on a high-volume of sales of the few good examples in their overstuffed catalogs, over and over again to many different buyers. But that practice is anathema for corporations intent on protecting the imagery associated with their branded identities. The practice persists, however, because it is enabled by how cheap and easy it is to collect staggering numbers of photos by crowd-sourcing them, and because consumers are less picky than corporations about quality and exclusivity.
A photograph, whether shot on assignment or chosen from a pre-shot inventory, acquires tremendous commercial value when it becomes associated with a brand. A corporation will protect such an asset at any cost. Such photographs are created by an elite class of professionals.
Certain photographers are elite, not because they say they are but because the clients who pay them say they are. Their clients have vetted them to shoot made-to-order pictures for commercial publication, trusting them with big budgets and even bigger creative responsibilities.
Those same clients also want access to unpublished and rights-reverted photographs that have already been shot (and continue to be shot) by elite photographers. These are called residuals.
Residuals is an industry term of art for pre-shot commercial photos. Residuals are the photographers’ intellectual property—owned outright. But residuals are practically unavailable for publication because they’re fragmented into tens of thousands of separate pools. And because residuals are not online, they are effectively off the market. So, how does a publisher tap into this scattered but continuously recharged trove of premium content?
Bear in mind that each individual photographer is a discrete business entity. Each one writes checks for operational overhead, often including studio rent and many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars worth of specialized camera, lighting, and grip equipment. They must purchase and maintain it all themselves. They employ photo assistants and often direct larger crews of freelance stylists, designers, technicians, location scouts, and producers. Commercial photographers are not interchangeable links in a commodified supply chain, as conventional lay wisdom would have them.
In the context of this treatise, when referring to professional photographers, I mean COMMERCIAL photographers explicitly. They are defind by a distinctive set of business practices and prerogatives. These kinds of professionals (pro videographers too) are trusted and hired to shoot jobs that are ultimately published by their own carefully cultivated clientele, to whom they grant publication rights, and from whom they receive payments in return. Such payments are commensurate with the terms of a written copyright-licensing agreement. Different terms are negotiated for each and every separate transaction, whether it’s for the publication of a photo resulting from a commissioned job or the publication of a pre-shot stock photo.
Photographers who shoot weddings, bar-mitzvahs, headshots, “grip-and-grin,” school portraits, amateur sports teams, and other social events participate in a totally separate market: SOCIAL Photo. It is not related to either one of Commercial Photo’s two segments: Enterprise and Consumer.
It should go without saying that photographers who are full-time employees of any company, other than their own, are excluded from this marketplace.
Passive Capture of Content
There cannot be three Facebooks or six Googles. Those companies became institutions because, ultimately, there remained only one of each in its class. Right now, there is no “go-to” platform, no home for the worldwide community of commercial photographers and their enterprise publishing clients to congregate. If there were, it would be possible to intercept symmetrical information flowing back and forth between them. In addition to their commercial transactions, it would capture the photographs themselves, passively, seamlessly, and cooperatively during routine electronic file transfers (job delivery/fulfillment) — part of the digital photography workflow.
Why is the passive capture of digital image files important? Very simply put, ninety percent (90%) of professional photographers do not — and will not — proactively contribute to the stock photo pipeline.
Data and the Primacy of Privacy
Any wary photographer may ask, from a privacy perspective, what difference is there between a Facebook or a Google surreptitiously collecting private information and monetizing it with third parties versus a company that collects data about photographers and their economic relationships with publishers? The difference is that only the photographers and publishers who create the data can use the data.
The data give them interactive and actionable market intelligence to make doing business with each other more productive. There is no data sharing outside the network; no pernicious effect on privacy.
Better Stock Photos
It should be clear by now that better stock is NOT about better search. Better stock, in the minds of buyers, means stock created by the same artists they hire to shoot jobs. They do not want crowd-sourced photos. They are aware that the most talented and self-respecting commercial photographers will not “join the crowd” of camera enthusiasts who contribute pictures to online vendors who pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap.
As far as any middleman should be concerned, photographers and publishers must have equal standing — as customers. But middlemen, those who encroached on the role previously played by photo agents, don’t treat photographers like customers at all.
Photography lives at the intersection of art and commerce. One would expect that intersection to be in the cloud. But it’s not.
Intellectual property — digital imagery —should be allowed to mingle in the cloud with the seller-buyer transactional data underlying its creation, where both can be captured to generate a continuously fresh inventory plus actionable market intelligence about how photos and videos are actually used by publishers. But to get one’s hands on such content and data, one has to do something that is indispensably useful — a number of things, actually — for those who create the photos in the first place. Only under such circumatances can that underlying data be fed through a rights-managed AI pricing matrix — a pricing engine — and be integrated with a photo industry-specific electronic payments system.
With such a pricing engine in place, an algorithm determines the fee to be collected in exchange for granting publication rights to any given photo; and it is tied to the actual commercial value a publisher derives from its specific use. It is calculated in real time, transaction by transaction. These data, collected as a direct result of automating rights-managed pricing for commissioned jobs, has an extraordinary follow-on effect. It undoes the prevailing and problematical “one-low-price-fits-all” model for stock photos. It can also tell Capital One that Wells Fargo has already used the picture they’d hoped to use for their own marketing campaign. Happens every day.
The Role of a Broker is Not Matchmaker
It is the responsibility of any third-party agent, or broker, to create an infrastructure that attracts elite commercial photographers like a magnet. A broker will consolidate them, making it easier for photographers to do business with their existing clientele, and vice versa.
Wherever commercial photographers congregrate online, they bring their content with them, just as they brought their content with them — and created new content — when they joined a photo agency back in the day. It is their intellectual property. They own it, lock, stock, and copyright. That principle applies no matter who paid to produce it (unless a photographer relinquishes copyright in a written and signed agreement, as per federal law). It is no mere assumption that publishers follow the content.
Absent equal respect for the economic concerns of publishers and photographers, it is impossible for any vendor to obtain marketing rights to a dynamically replenished source of premium stock photos. The only way publishers can gain access, that is to pick and choose from such a source, is through a broker who can consolidate commercial pro photographers worldwide under one virtual roof. Here’s how to do that.
The role of a broker-cum-agent — indeed the proprietor of the marketplace — is different than the role played by a middleman in a consumer-facing retail marketplace. That’s because sellers and buyers have already cultivated direct relationships with each other. Any role for third parties to create relationships in B2B Commercial Photo is tertiary at best. But there is a certain role to help maintain those relationships. The thing is, existing relationships, well, exist off-line. That means content and revenue are off-line too. They’re fragmented. But rewards are aplenty for the broker who will optimize economic outcomes for both sellers and buyers by making transactions easy and equitable. Neither Getty Images, Shutterstock, nor AdobeStock et al. will do that because it would mean connecting photographers directly with the publishers who pay them. They’d cannibalize their own sales.
If the most tried-and-true twenty-first-century investment thesis is to take an essential industry that’s not digital and make it digital, it’s not hard to see how connecting photographers with their existing clients online will do the following:
- Automate back-office transactions
- Consolidate the photographers themselves
- Consolidate Digital Asset Management for publishers
- Automate complex B2B copyright-licensing language
- Protect intellectual property rights for photographers
- Foster exclusivity in the stock photo pipeline, to protect brand identity for publishers
- Institutionalize electronic billings + payments industry-wide, on one proprietary platform
Economic and creative outcomes are radically transformed by building a marketplace network where photo industry participants want to be. Such a marketplace prevents inventory bloat and the overuse of individual photographs, thus protecting every buyer’s unique brand identity, so different companies don’t get screwed using the same picture. It makes prices sustainable for photographers and affordable for publishers by leveling the economic playing field, then tilting both sides toward the proprietor of this marketplace, sitting in the middle of the revenue stream.
To have an intelligent discussion about the future of photography, three misconceptions must be dispelled. Here are your noise-canceling headphones:
1) Blockchain addresses issues that keep photographers up at night.
NOT TRUE. In the Commercial Photo industry, blockchain is hardly necessary to establish intellectual property ownership and provenance. It is categorically incapable of “protecting” either the legal or economic prerogatives of copyright holders. Straightforward ways to do that already exist, although they can and should be automated. Moreover, relying on a “distributed” or “decentralized” inventory of pre-shot stock photos would only create new problems, not solutions, for publishers.
2) Image curation and post-production image processing pose grand problems for artificial intelligence to solve.
NOT TRUE. This is routine stuff. Creatives have bigger fish to fry.
3) There are millions of photographers.
NOT TRUE. In fact, there are only about 150,000 working pros shooting commercially worldwide (earning billions of dollars in fees). Many more people claim to be photographers, implying a professional standing. Some are indeed pros, who earn their livings shooting weddings, head-shots, and “grip-and-grin” events. But theirs is an unrelated industry, not even a segment of Commercial Photo. Their business is aimed at retail consumers. Despite their use of cameras, in common with commercial photographers, they are not hired by corporate brands and editorial media companies to shoot pictures for publication. They have no Enterprise clientele.
Many additional claimants are camera enthusiasts who enjoy the concept of “sharing” photos. Less concerned about making money but proud of their work, they’ve found an outlet to show-off online. A lot of them are quite good — better than good. Sometimes they earn a few dollars for pictures in a retail, consumer-commodity context. It’s not enough to buy a new lens.
Understanding Pre-shot (Stock) vs. Assignment Photos (Jobs)
Consumer-retail stock photo sales represent a $4.5 billion segment of the $14 billion photo-publishing industry. It is the business of licensing and re-licensing pre-shot photographs for publication. For commercial and editorial use that is, not art to hang on the wall or to memorialize private events
Stock photographs are used mostly by very small businesses — shopkeepers, startups, freelancers, etc. — to illustrate Web pages, blogs, brochures, and Powerpoint presentations.
Major brands will license stock photos too, often for comprehensive page layouts (“comps” for short). Comps are visual rough drafts presented by graphic designers and art directors to their clients for approval, to show what a finished project will look like when published in print, online, or broadcast. They don’t require much exclusivity; they’re not promulgated to a wide audience; they shouldn’t cost very much. But if a stock photo is used in the final version of a publication (of whatever kind) it will command a higher price. The price is called, alternatively and synonymously, either a licensing fee or a usage fee. It is commensurate with the extent of publication rights granted. But, generally, these pictures are available for quick digital downloads on the cheap when a limited budget or a looming deadline makes it impractical to hire a photographer for a made-to-order photo assignment.
The reasoning behind cheaper prices is that no further production expenses need to be incurred; the picture has already been shot and was inventoried, put on the shelf, so to speak. Hence the stock in stock photo. The price paid for publishing it derives from its commercial value to the publisher. So the fee can vary widely, if the photo is licensed to more than one publisher. It can be quite high, though, if used exclusively by only one publisher.
Stock photos are sometimes available directly from the photographer who shot them. They are more likely to be licensed from a centralized customer-searchable catalog, an e-commerce exchange owned and operated by a middleman who takes a cut. Stock may include pictures of timeless historical value (all digitized now) including famous people, places, and things. But middlemen, as well as photographers who are dedicated to shooting stock, continuously anticipate abstract themes and specific subject matter that publishers are likely to want illustrated in a rapidly changing commercial and visual environment, breaking-news photos notwithstanding.
Most stock photos have a limited shelf-life, just like food — a “use-by date.” They are considered perishable if their subject matter is likely to lose credibility or relevance over time, and look dated. Ergo, stock photos must continually be replenished to reflect what is new in the worlds of fashion, politics, sports, celebrity, cultural ephemera — generally everything imaginable. (There are stock videos too.)
Life’s a Pitch
Many attempts have been made to reinvent the photo business. After all, it is a multibillion-dollar industry with equal relevance to technology, commerce, and culture. Yet it is fraught with severe customer-satisfaction issues. And the industry’s potential for growth is not clearly understood beyond consolidating existing stock photo inventories: big fish swallowing smaller fish. The incumbents and startups alike have failed time after time to consolidate the photographers themselves, those who are capable of creating and replenishing new inventories. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs have shown a serial determination to beat Getty Images, the biggest fish, at its own game. But, first, they have to run a gauntlet of investors.
As an “artrepreneur,” I’ve seen a few investor pitches. I’ve made a few investor pitches. It’s a Silicon Valley ritual.
Typically, a successful pitch describes a problem that strikes a chord with everyone in the room. It has immediate relevance, and it offers a solution. Or it addresses a new twist to an established technology that only affects consumers indirectly, but makes immediate sense to investors. That said, no one in the room has ever licensed a stock photo for either commercial or editorial publication. Nor has anyone ever hired a photographer to shoot such a photograph — or shot one themselves. Still, both the ubiquity and demotic appeal of photography predispose everyone to think, “I know all about this.”
What they know is riding the rails of presumption. After all, everyone has a camera. Many people use Instagram, SmugMug, Apple Photos, and Google Photos as electronic shoeboxes for storing their snapshots. Lots of people have hired a wedding photographer or someone to take a publicity headshot. You, or someone you know, may have attracted news-media attention and become the subject of a photojournalist. And who hasn’t downloaded a photo to illustrate a Web page, a blog post, or a Powerpoint presentation? But for those who are not either a practicing art director or graphic designer (a buyer), or shooting pictures for commercial publication (a seller), the business of photography is as well understood as a cocker spaniel understands how dog food gets in a can.
How many more times must the latest razzle-dazzle team of MBAs and Ph.D. engineers, with zero experience in photography, sing the same old song to credulous investors before they all realize it ends on the wrong note — every time?
The Commercial Photo Market
There are Two Separate MARKETS: Commercial vs. Social
Photography’s commercial value, not to mention its other inherent values, is habitually undermined by businesspeople with no photographic experience and by photographers with no business experience. Both parties are to blame for a persistent arrogation — sadly mistaken — that one business model can serve two totally separate markets:
- Commercial Photo, the business of licensing intellectual property to major brands and media companies
- Social Photo (aka Wedding & Portrait), the retail business of selling (not licensing) memorabilia and tangible goods to consumers for personal use (e.g., photo albums)
Note: Social Media is NOT a photography marketplace because intellectual property is neither bought nor sold on these platforms. Nor do Social Media platforms produce any content on their own. Social Media is simply a conduit for advertisers. It is a medium. It is not “the media.”
There are Two Separate SEGMENTS of One Commercial Market
Investors and startup founders compound their mistake by further conflating two separate segments of the Commercial Photo market as one and the same:
- Enterprise, the business-to-business segment serving brands and media (B2B/pro-sourced)
- Consumer, the retail segment serving shopkeepers, freelancers, bloggers, and startups (C2B/crowd-sourced)
Only when Enterprise and Consumer are acknowledged as separate segments of one market, with each segment serving a different class of customers, is it evident how one hand does not wash the other.
Note: There is no B2C segment (business-to-consumer) in Commercial Photo.
I’ll try to explain this as simply as possible. Individual consumers (as opposed to commercial clients) cannot afford to pay prices that would sustain any single photographer’s business, unless that “business” held a lock on the supply side for all photographers; which would enable it to charge artificially low prices on a high volume of sales to ordinary consumers. That describes the current state of affairs. That describes a middleman, not a photographer.
Consider that, if “B” represented sellers, then “2” would represent a middleman, and “C” would represent all of the buyers in a marketplace. In that scenario, no individual seller could economically sustain doing business with buyers unless the “B” (the seller) and the “2” (the middleman) were one and the same. But that’s not possible unless the “2” extracts huge quantities of content from amateurs and “wannabe” pros who think that getting their pictures published — for just pennies or for free — will lead to some vague kind of recognition; or maybe lead to good-paying photo assignments. And that describes crowd-sourcing.
It also describes exploitation. It’s not a marketplace, but a monopoly where ONLY the middleman thrives. That’s what C2B would be (or B2C, if you like), if one insists on describing it that way. However, to the chagrin of middlemen themselves, buyers look at the crowd-sourcing of publishable photographs like the zany logic of expecting a Shakespeare sonnet to emerge from the random typing of a chimpanzee over thousands of years.
Individual sellers, those who rely on marketing their own photographic services to earn a living, categorically refuse to allow middlemen to represent their sales BECAUSE middlemen rely on volume transactions at ultra-low prices; too low for any individual seller to sustain a livable income. A putative B2C segment is merely the mirror image of C2B, In either case, only the “2” makes money.
As both a seasoned photographer and startup founder myself, I am utterly bewildered by the fact that investors, time after time, apply the rules of a conventional consumer-facing business to the steeply vertical enterprise of commercial photography. Their failure to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of this marketplace is the very reason an opportunity exists to disrupt it in the first place. And it elicits a rhetorical but unapologetically cynical question: How many more times must the latest razzle-dazzle team of MBAs and Ph.D. engineers, with zero — bupkis, nada!— experience in photography, sing the same old song to credulous investors before they all realize it ends on the wrong note — every time?
Investors might be forgiven for their confusion, if only because both the Commercial Photo and Social Photo markets use cameras as tools of their respective trades. Less pardonable, however, is the same investors’ inability to differentiate between two segments of one market.
The differences between Enterprise B2B and Consumer C2B are as profound as the differences between chess and checkers; two completely different games with completely different rules, whose only similarity begins and ends with a playing board; just as any similarity between two profoundly different business models begins and ends with a camera.
The public at large is familiar with the Consumer C2B segment. After all, who does not participate in this segment, to one extent or another? Ironically, however, the most lucrative segment of the most obvious enterprise in the world — literally obvious, lies hidden in plain sight. Big corporations, along with an aggregation of smaller companies, spend many billions of dollars each year to make sure you see the photographs they produce every day, aiming to influence the financial, cultural, and political decisions you make every day.
Texting & Pixting
Let me clear up one more widely held misconception. Even though photographers use platforms like Instagram effectively to promote their commercial availability or showcase their art, or both, so-called “influencers” on social media play no role at all in the photography industry.
Don’t let that surprise you. Influencers are not paid to provide photographic services but for how many “followers” they attract, given their respective talents for garnering “fifteen minutes of fame” (as per Andy Warhol’s timeless dictum). Of course, real celebrities can be influencers too: athletes, musicians, movies stars, etc. They all get paid to guilefully display or deliberately pose with name-brand products, thus making tacit commercial endorsements to their followers.
It’s called “product placement,” of course. It’s a successful way to advertise. You already know that. It started in the movies, with, say, a beer bottle placed with its label facing the camera in a scene featuring movie star’s name here. Some brewing company paid for that. But it gets more interesting. Influencers with large followings are often financially supported by advertising agencies who employ professional “ringers” to shoot pictures that merely look like user-generated content. But it is not UGC. Pros are hired for their ability to reliably produce an “amateur-looking aesthetic.” Attribution of the resulting pictures is, shall we say, disingenuous. The point is, social media is just another medium for advertisers, who pay pro photographers to create content the good old-fashioned way: they pay them.
The vast preponderance of so-called “content creators,” people who enjoy showing what they ate for breakfast to their online “friends,” are not influencers per se. For real influencers it’s a vocation; it’s their job. They market themselves and earn income. I’m not trying to disparage any porridge paparazzi, but not even millions of social media snapshooters can accomplish what one commercial photographic illustrator can do, just pretending to be an influencer, to get you to buy any given brand of breakfast cereal.
I’ve coined a word for the use of photographic technology on social media: pixting.
Pixting is to photography as texting is to literature. It means engaging in perfunctory conversation by utilizing pictures instead of words across a digital medium. It’s visual smalltalk; the appropriation of a one hundred and seventy-year-old technology called photography for visual chitchat. Anyone can string a few written words together. That doesn’t make them authors. There are a lot of people walking around with cameras. That doesn’t make them photographers.
Do pro photographers use social media? Sure they do. But it’s a means of self-promotion for the most part, to grab the attention of clients who will pay them real money to shoot real jobs—including for publication on social media itself. Can an image published on Instagram be picked up for subsequent use in a commercial ad? Sure, why not?
Defining a Twofold Problem
There are two Bs in B2B, representing two sets of customers. The two sets do business with each other:
- Commercial photographers who create and own intellectual property
- Enterprise publishers who license IP for their own use
The 2 in the middle of B2B represents, of course, the middlemen. Their role is to facilitate transactions between the two Bs. It’s a coveted economic position. But middlemen have failed to acquit themselves comprehensively in that role, in lieu of the photo agents they displaced. Poof! That caused a whole host of problems. Two in particular are voiced loud and clear by sellers and buyers respectively:
- Commercial photographers say, “We’ve lost control over pricing our own work.”
- Enterprise publishers say, “Stock photo inventories offer too many choices, but too few good ones.”
When creators lose control over pricing their own work, publishers get flooded with mediocre content. The two problems act upon each other reciprocally. It is also harder for photographers who shoot commissioned jobs to stay solvent financially and remain available to serve the publishers who rely on their talents for visual problem-solving.
Recently funded photography startups, including Wemark, Photochain, Meero, and EyeEm et al. epitomize “deja vu all over again” or we’ve seen this movie before. Each one boasts about having on-boarded tens of thousands of pro photographers and, by implication, professionally produced content. They say their attraction includes the promised implementation of blockchain technology. They’re kidding themselves.
Many of the ostensibly pro photographers they claim to “on-board” are the same enthusiasts already contributing to every other stock photo distributor. Nevertheless, some terrific photos are bound to turn up in circulation. But they’re the same terrific photos. They, too, will get lost in a sea of mediocrity, increasingly diluted by too many millions more not-so-terrific examples. This flood of poorly curated pictures is continuously overtopping an already bloated inventory. Call it photobesity.
Outliers aside, the contributors whom startup founders have tried to appeal to are categorically not pro photographers; particularly not just because they say they are, or hope to turn pro one day in the future. In fact, these startups, the incumbents too, are either delusional or deliberately misleading naive photo enthusiasts to believe they can make money by getting their work seen by lots of buyers.
It is misguided to think that any company’s success corresponds with how many proactive content contributors they can recruit. Publishers, the buyers that is, already complain about how hard it is to find the kinds of photos they want amongst so many tens of millions in any given vendor’s inventory. And it’s not because they can’t find any good ones; IT’S BECAUSE THEY ALL FIND THE SAME GOOD ONES, EXACTLY BECAUSE THEY’RE GOOD.
A great photo, once it’s discovered by one buyer, will inevitably be discovered by additional buyers. It will be sold over and over and over again dirt cheap. Thus overused, it is published too many times in too many places by too many different end-users. That’s bad for buyers with brand identities to protect. And it’s bad for photographers trying to make a living.
Enterprise publishers are particularly frustrated because they have to comb through inventories that have already been picked clean by tiny businesses and individual consumers who outnumber them exponentially. According to information available on Linkedin.com, it too often costs major brands or media companies more money to find a useable photo than what they might pay for a license to publish it.
According to the 2019 annual survey of commercial image buyers conducted by Visualsteam.com, a distinguished team of marketing professionals, it also takes publishers twices as much time to find an image, today, as it did four years ago.
It obvious that stock photos added to the online inventory each year are found and sold on multiple stock photo exchanges. There they sit, gathering digital dust on the virtual shelf for far too long. The incumbent vendors’ business model categorically prevents them from dynamically restocking their inventories with premium content or eliminating what becomes stale and overused because it would mean connecting photographers, sellers, directly with buyers; which contradicts the very idea of being a middleman in a crowd-sourced consumer-facing business.
It’s worth saying again that, just because most stock photos are created by amateur enthusiasts instead of professionals, it doesn’t mean they’re no good. But it does mean the best ones, the most useful ones, are few and far between.
Quality is inconsistent when image inventories are restocked incoherently, by casting a broad net with no effective means of curation. AI cannot do the job. The job is too subjective and idiosyncratic. And if you think the incumbents can employ enough sophisticated humans to eyeball crowd-sourced contributions, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Boatloads must be uploaded just to find a few that are worth a publisher’s time and money to download. But poor curation, overuse, and dysfunctional pricing are only symptoms of the root problem. Again, ninety percent (90%) of commercial photographers do not contribute to the stock photo pipeline.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent — one could say squandered — by investors on dozens of startup and upstart companies, every one of which has claimed to know how to “on-board professional photographers” and, hence, obtain better content. They admit it’s their holy grail. But with one scheme after another, what they believe will incentivize professionals to contribute content just puts another shade of lipstick on the same old pig: “We’ll offer them a bigger percentage of royalties.”
But royalties mean little to commercial photographers (the kind they’re really talking about) because they make their livings earning fees for shooting commissioned jobs; stock photos not so much. They’ve given up all expectations of earning income from their residuals in the current market environment. Besides, they’ve all heard that empty “royalty” promise before. It doesn’t jibe with the free in “royalty-free,” the prevailing business model.
Photography has changed radically in the 21st century.
The principles underlying the business of photography haven’t changed one bit.
Incumbent photo vendors are glued to the idea that one price fits all. That’s what “royalty-free” means. That mindset that makes them vulnerable to disruption. They are the proverbial battleship lumbering low in the water, too massive to outmaneuver a fast-attack torpedo boat running circles around it. Still, every trope, every meme, and every buzzword that startup founders pitch to investors is tied to RF commodified pricing for retail consumers:
- AI image-recognition to search collections
- Blockchain, to “register” and “enforce” copyrights
- Decentralized, distributed-content
- Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and cryptocurrency payments
- Networked smartphone cameras to capture breaking news
- “Briefs” . . . i.e., persuading dozens or hundreds of photographers at a time to spend their own money shooting on speculation, then submitting pictures to a distributor’s proprietary clients on an approval basis; whereby, if chosen, only one photographer gets paid. Still, that photographer will have lost control over licensing terms and fees
- “We have more contributors and more photos than anyone else.”
- “We’re pickier about who our contributors are.”
- “Our photos are free.” [Are you frickin’ kidding me!?]
There is nothing inherently wrong with either blockchain or decentralization; and certainly nothing artificial about the promise of artificial intelligence. But not one of the ideas listed above will incentivize professionals to contribute to the stock photo pipeline. Not one of those ideas solves a problem that creatives and publishers experience working together. Not one of them addresses the bigger and underserved Enterprise segment of the Commercial Photo market.
Typically, startup founders prescribe competitive solutions for Commercial Photo that are either irrelevant or at cross purposes with the business problems they presume to solve, looking right past an obvious fact: pro photographers will reject any company whose business model would exploit them economically. They are, after all, professionals. Professionals do not crowd-source.
Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater
Startups, upstarts, their founders, and investors have a long history of failing to appreciate what separates professionals from mere camera enthusiasts; or, more important, why Enterprise buyers make that distinction themselves. It is generally agreed, however, that on-boarding pros is the key to a sustainable competitive advantage in online photo licensing. But expecting commercial photographers to contribute to a vendor like Shutterstock would be like expecting all National Geographic staff photographers to shoot and edit their photo assignments on smartphones, instead of using sophisticated cameras, lenses, lights, and grip equipment along with side-by-side arrays of thirty-inch color-corrected monitors, gobs of RAM, specialized graphic-processing cards, and untold terabytes of hard drive storage space. Ain’t gonna happen.
Investors’ and startup-founders’ familiarity with wedding photographers and camera-toting tyros, who enjoy seeing their personal pictures shared online, cannot offer any insight into the arcane business of licensing commercial photography for publication. So, how does one, first, identify commercial photographers and, then, secure their cooperation? How is it possible to filter them out of all the other photographers in the world?
First, though, why do investors and entrepreneurs keep making the same mistake, conflating two different kinds of photographers representing two different segments using two different business models, resulting in too few professionals contributing to the stock photo pipeline?
First and foremost, it is erroneous to believe that best practices, having once supported a robust analog photography market, are mutually exclusive with online photo sales & licensing. Technology can be used to institutionalize best practices instead of side-stepping them.
Just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized by unimaginative middlemen.
Early on, entrepreneurs and their financial backers were cocksure that creating a new e-commerce channel for digital photos meant sacking all previous pricing models. It was a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They operated under a widespread belief throughout the 90s that “the Internet changes everything” and that that mantra would usher the “old economy” kicking and screaming into the future.
A lot did change. Technology made taking pictures effortless. But no one used technology to make the business of taking pictures effortless.
There is a greater demand today to publish photographs in commercial (and editorial) media than in the heyday of film. If the number of in-print venues has declined, it is more than offset by an exponential increase in online publication opportunities. Demand continues to grow. There are also just as many pro photographers working today throughout the world as there were then, still winning contracts to shoot photo assignments. To say otherwise, we would have to believe that the number of practicing doctors would decline in direct proportion to the public’s ability to self-medicate for minor maladies with over-the-counter drugs; or because anyone can self-diagnose any serious illness by Googling their symptoms. On the contrary, there is always a need for authoritative professional practitioners of medicine. The same goes for photography.
Significantly, the Internet has not changed any principles that determine business outcomes. The technology for creating photographs has changed radically in the 21st century; but the business of photography hasn’t changed one bit. Just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized by unimaginative middlemen. But that’s exactly what happened.
Some well capitalized interlopers, good at reading spreadsheets but, frankly, photographically illiterate, expected professional practitioners to embrace an amateur ethic without regard for undermining their own economic well being or for underserving their clients. The “Internet-changes-everything” proponents failed to see any difference between an already established business-to-business sales channel and a new consumer-facing sales channel that emerged at the same time as — and made possible by — the World Wide Web, which itself evolved on the Internet.
The early interlopers deserve kudos for developing this new channel. It continues to serve a class of customers that had not existed before the the Web: ordinary consumers and very small businesses who previously had little need to publish photographs or the wherewithal to pay for them. But the new distributors, the interlopers, were too short-sighted to see how an existing B2B channel could coexist with a new C2B channel. Driving at breakneck speed down the newly paved Information Highway, they made roadkill out of the goose that lays the golden eggs: pro photographers.
Institutional Memory Loss
Nearly thirty years ago, Bill Gates and Mark Getty bought the photo business. Full stop. They had no experience with photography. Gates and Getty were the first interlopers, the middlemen who displaced traditional photo agents.
Gates and Getty (Corbis and Getty Images) were in competition with each other; but both plainly saw how to make money by rolling up photo agencies into one big ball, funneling their many smaller and fragmented revenue streams into a single torrent of cash: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It was a shrewd consolidation play in the best tradition of private equity investing, irrespective of the havoc it played with photographers’ careers or the cultural, commercial, and historical underpinnings that account for the value of photography in the first place.
Gates and Getty knew how much photographs were worth to their respective bottom lines. But the care and feeding of photographers and the integrity of photography itself were incidental to their costs of doing business. The artistes were tolerated until what came to be known as crowd-sourcing grew widespread: an open call to the general public for submissions; an effort to obtain more photos at no upfront cost.
In the 1990s, it became obvious to investors that photography was the perfect product for electronic commerce (e-commerce). There were no manufacturing costs (photographers paid their own production costs); nominal warehousing costs (digitized files were stored on servers); customer demand was high, profit margins were huge; and there were no shipping costs. In fact, there was no need for a FedEx or UPS delivery truck at all.
Amateur camera enthusiasts, less concerned about making money but nonetheless proud of their work, were given an outlet for their photos on the Web. It’s hard to find fault with that. But when hundreds of thousands — or millions — of contributors get paid peanuts individually, what might seem like a big payout in the aggregate pales in comparison with what just a few stakeholders in Corbis and Getty raked in due to sheer sales volume.
It’s easy to see how this could be construed as exploitation. But that debate is irrelevant if one considers that the recklessness of the consolidators lies first and foremost in their conflation of all that crowd-sourced amateur content with professionally produced content — INTO ONE SALES CHANNEL.
Professionals were offered shelf space inside the store, so to speak, but only if they shared it side by side with amateurs at pathetic prices, thus taking the wind out of their sales (pun intended). As time went on, lower licensing fees fostered a notion amongst publishers — the corporate bean counters, not the art directors — that pictures viewed on a screen were worth less than those seen in print. Baseless as that opinion was, it stuck. It didn’t take long for pros to disappear from the stock photo shelves, while, at the same time, they began to lose control over pricing their commissioned photo shoots too — their jobs. They had little recourse against a powerful alliance of capital and the supersonic pace of change it wrought.
In a consumer-facing marketplace, crowd-sourced submissions made professional photo producers superfluous. Tiny businesses and freelance proprietors of all stripes, who had only recently developed a need to fill rapidly increasing numbers of Web sites with photos, were happy with low prices and ordinary images. But Enterprise-segment buyers were — and are —dissatisfied with the increasing mediocrity of imagery available online. Money was — and still is — left on the table that they would be happy to pay for consistent quality and exclusivity.
More to the point, photographers lost all trust in middlemen who licensed their work for so little money that the same photos had to sell over and over again to many different buyers to to be profitable — a profit that only the middlemen would see. It’s easy, therefore, to understand how the overuse of individual photos was as bad for buyers trying to protext their brand identities as the low prices that led to such overuse in the first place was bad for photographers trying to earn a living.
By the late aughts, which ushered in a conjunction of universal broadband with the eclipse of film (i.e., the fast uploading and downloading of digital images culminating in Kodak’s 2012 bankruptcy), the Corbis-Getty juggernaut had long since cut photographers out of the profit proposition. Professionals, an entire class of individual business owners, were treated collectively like an unskilled labor force, employees in a manufacturing supply chain creating a raw material.
There is no other way to describe it. The vendors’ disdain for established photographers, and their utter ignorance for how the business had been run successfully for decades, spawned an adversarial relationship that persists to this day. A younger generation of photographers has little knowledge of this acrimonious history and how it continues to adversely affect their careers.
Some laypeople and young photographers have a general impression that Getty Images is a bastion of photojournalism, that’s it’s a feather in any photojournalist’s cap to be a “Getty photographer.” After all, Getty offers prestigious competitive grants — albeit relatively tiny ones — that foster the work of selected photojournalists. Getty sponsors events and conferences attended by professional photographers. And one sees Getty photo credits everywhere, including on photographs it acquired for distribution long after they were shot; having had no role in their production, economic or otherwise, except to vacuum up distribution rights.
As practically the only game left in town, not due to competitive superiority but deep pockets, Getty Images became a behemoth of editorial-photo distribution (for publication). Yet Getty has never represented more than a few hundred of the tens of thousands of working pro photojournalists. In fact, these hardworking, brave, intelligent, and insightful photojournalists persevere in spite of Getty’s machinations. It is with gross hypocrisy that Getty itself lays blame for the existential problems facing photojournalism, today, on social media and search platforms, instead of acknowledging the fact that its own cofounders, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, are personally responsible for creating and perpetuating photo industry dysfunction in the first place, and that they began their economic assault on photographers before the advent of the World Wide Web. That’s not just this writer’s pique, inveighing against the perceived injustice of it all, but the broadly held opinion of many authoritative industry creatives on both the buying and the selling sides of the marketplace. Ironically, it was the Web’s effectiveness at fostering consumer-facing, commodified transactions that saved their insidious business model from total failure.
Initially, Bill Gates, Mark Getty, and Jonathan Klein hired people to run their companies who cared deeply about photography and photographers. Whether by resignation or firing, they left in quick succession. Today, there is no longer anyone at the helm with firsthand knowledge about best practices that once governed a true photo agency. There are no photo agencies anymore; far fewer anyway, to competitively recruit and foster the best creative talent. By the time millennial photographers and photo buyers habituated to crowd-sourcing, along with a new generation of software designers and engineers, an institutional memory loss prevailed. No one knew, anymore, how to maximize the economic value of photography.
Industry-embraced best practices got lost in a fog and were consigned to oblivion, despite the hard work of an earlier generation of photographers and the guilds that represented them to establish honest principles with photo buyers. The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and the Advertising Photographers of America (APA) promulgated one simple and fair principle that remains protected by federal copyright law: the more one pays to license a photograph, the more market reach one gets (i.e., broader publication rights). That principle applies irrespective of what medium a photograph is published in.
Copyright lingers in a state of disuse, hardly the yardstick it once was for meting out publication rights (hence copy-rights) for any given photograph. But with the technology available today, it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Digital Dogma Was Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Cameras, lenses, lights, and photo-editing software have flourished with technological innovation since the dawn of the Digital Century. It was all on the creative side. But the business side of photography is riven by technological indifference. That’s regrettable because it was always possible to shape technology for the benefit of photographers and the clients they serve, rather than to upend the way they work for the sole economic benefit of middlemen.
For example, neither Corbis or Getty Images were based in Silicon Valley; but early on they boarded a train of thought headed in that direction. The Valley is obsessed with the notion of “sharing” and a so-called “gig economy.” Uber and Airbnb are the two best known instantiations. However, unlike Uber, whose riders and drivers are universally interchangeable, and unlike Airbnb, whose renters and landlords are also universally interchangeable, contracting a photographer for a commercial photo shoot is a highly subjective matter. It is usually the result of a cultivated, long-term professional relationship.
Vendors who crave the competitive advantages that on-boarding professionals will bring are obliged to remember that publishers are the photographers’ clients, not theirs.
The very meaning of the word professional was skewed, if not deliberately skewered, by Silicon Valley’s obsession with “on-demand labor,” with quick and cheap transactions for simple services. The fallacy is, you can’t just collar the first person to pass by, wearing a Nikon on a neckstrap, to shoot an ad campaign for Toyota or Pepsi. You can’t call TaskRabbit to shoot a magazine cover for Wired or Forbes or a brochure for Boeing. On the other hand, if you’re a freelancer whose business-marketing needs don’t require more than posting pictures to Instagram, you can get by with that sort of thing. But if you are the chief marketing officer for a large company you’d be mad to ask anyone to snap pictures with an iPhone or a Canon Rebel, or someone who took her first and only full-frame Nikon 850 out of the box three weeks earlier, to support your advertising campaign.
Photo vendors who crave the competitive advantages of getting professional contributors to board their gravy train are obliged to remember that publishers (i.e., the buyers) are the photographers’ clients, not theirs. The revenue vendors earn comes from photographers, not from downloaders, because the photographers own what’s being sold.
Claiming that kind of economic respect may not matter to mere enthusiasts who are happy and proud to make a few extra bucks with their cameras. But harboring a notion that pro photographers should get paid so-called “royalties” by the vendors (who own nothing), instead of acknowledging that professionals pay sales commissions to the vendors, is both insincere and inaccurate because every pro photographer is a business owner running either a sole proprietorship, S Corp, C Corp, LLC, or LLP.
Professionalism, Workflow, and Copyright
The ability of individual photographers to establish professional relationships with paying clients depends as much on the practice of professionalism itself — adhering to best practices — as it does on talent. In that context, the complexity of any given licensing deal requires all parties to memorialize their agreements in writing. But it is nearly impossible for photographers to pick up a phone every time they pick up a camera, to call a lawyer to compose the language in a contract. What can they do? Automate!
There is no such a thing as an ordinary invoice for either a commissioned photo shoot or a stock photo sale. In the Commercial Photo industry, each invoice is a contract, including invoices for the editorial work of photojournalists shooting freelance assignments for magazines. Every invoice in this business is a legal document, a written agreement between two businesses: a photographer’s and a publisher’s. And every one contains explicit language that spells out the terms of the license. A license is the legal means of granting rights to a publisher, by a copyright holder, to copy a photograph (hence copy rights). And it specifically denies those (copy) rights not granted. The breadth of rights granted depends on how much, or how little, the client pays. More than a simple statement of demand for payment, each invoice memorializes the terms and conditions of a deal, and keeps it from becoming an ordeal.
On top of all that, each invoice includes a multiplicity of arcane and industry-specific, line-item billed expenses. Few photographers can remember them all, no matter what their level of experience is, considering demands on their time and the idiosyncrasies of budgeting, estimating, and billing from one photo shoot to the next. They are typically several days into their current job and several weeks behind invoicing it, wondering why cashflow makes sucking sounds. Nonetheless, they are required to come up with a document, an Invoice/License of Rights, resulting from a workflow that looks something like this:
Copyright by default establishes ownership of intellectual property from the moment of creation. It is the tool creators use to monetize their work. It is the sine qua non for establishing a usage fee, a requisite component of the total price that appears on the bottom line of every Invoice/License of Rights a photographer bills to a client
A usage fee appears as a discrete line item on each Invoice/License of Rights. It represents the cash value of the photo reproduction rights a photographer grants to a publisher, irrespective of additional expenses, taxes, and miscellaneous creative fees that are billed separately on the Invoice/License of Rights. The cherry on top (of the bottom line, so to speak) is that copyright is the legal basis — the final arbiter — for determining “attribution,” the issue of who shot what first. Nevertheless, attribution plays second fiddle to getting paid. Copyright helps photographers get paid.
When a publisher’s needs can be billed incrementally, that is itemized within the written language of a copyright license, costs can be kept down for publishers yet remain optimal for photographers. Otherwise, photographers would have to charge higher prices — sometimes a lot higher — to cover any and all imagined uses by any given publisher, now and in the future, whether those uses are implemented or not. On the other hand, copyright allows publishers to pay as they go and, of course, only for what they actually use. This à la carte menu process of parceling-out rights can easily be automated.
Writing a copyright license establishes the size of a publisher’s appetite in precise detail. For example, if you’re hungry for a T-bone steak, you needn’t pay for the entire steer. But if you have to feed an army, well, you have to pay accordingly. Prices vary from job to job, and from stock photo to stock photo; but they must be consistent with the commercial value derived by the client from the publication of any given photograph(s). The act of composing a copyright license susses out limited versus comprehensive publishing needs.
A usage fee can range all the way from an inexpensive one-time, non-exclusive publication on a single Web page at 1/8 screen size for up to one week, to a total “buyout” of all rights by an ad agency representing a major corporate brand. A buyout might include the photographer’s sale of a copyright itself, which would transfer ownership of the photograph(s) in question to the buyer. That should cost a whole lot more than a carefully defined, limited use. On the other hand, if securing exclusivity and the broadest publication rights are of lesser importance to a publisher, charging a lower fee is offset by the photographer’s right to earn additional income by re-licensing, or re-selling, residual rights to the photograph(s) in question. Additional publishers, or even the same publisher, can pay more if further uses arise later on. Thus, copyright helps determine fees that are affordable for publishers and economically sustainable for photographers. A fair balance.
These are the five criteria used to determine a usage fee. They can be implemented by algorithm:
1) Duration — how long a picture will remain in public view
2) Exclusivity — how few different places a picture will appear in public view
3) Frequency — how many different times a picture will appear in public view
4) Prevalence — how many people, over time, will see a picture
5) Size — how big a picture will appear, relative to the medium it’s published in
Note: A sixth pricing criterion is Reputation. It returns a production fee when billing each commissioned job. This is in addition to a usage fee. A production fee is based on the relative prestige of any given photographer. It is determined by an algorithm that looks at previous receivables, including factors like overhead, competitive market-penetration goals, who their clients are, and career longevity, vis à vis other photographers on the platform.
Pro-sourcing vs. Crowd-sourcing
Images Are Not Widgets
Seventy percent (70%) of the buyers now served by Getty Images, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock et al. are either ordinary consumers and freelancers or companies of fewer than twenty employees. Such small entities can easily make do with crowd-sourced content appearing on their websites. On the other hand, commercial brands and media requiring the broadest conceivable market reach are poorly served by crowd-sourced content because it inherently lacks exclusivity, the necessary condition to protect brand identity throughout broad international markets. Pro-sourcing, rather than crowd-sourcing, is a matter of recognizing who the buyers are and serving their specific needs. There is nothing generic about pro-sourcing.
A large shareholder in the company Shutterstock recently stated publicly, “Worldwide, the number of customers willing to actually pay for the images they use seems to be flat.” The company’s corporate annual report validates that statement; yet, it represents only one aspect of an industry-wide malaise: stock photo revenue has fallen flat for a decade.
The same shareholder acknowledged that Shutterstock had cut its already low prices, but grew the size of its inventory by forty-six (46%) percent in 2017. THAT’S THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION! Photo buyers continue to gripe that there are more pictures in any given vendor’s inventory than there are atoms in a cow. That means it’s hard to find photos that haven’t already been published by someone else. Incidentally, that shareholder also concluded, “AI doesn’t seem to be solving the search problem. Acquisitions don’t seem to be the answer [either].”
To paraphrase an old truism, it’s easier to sell a thousand photos for a dollar than one photo for a thousand dollars. Of course, if a buyer thinks it’s only worth paying a dollar for a photo (most likely a retail consumer), a middleman vendor makes out okay because it has millions of other one-dollar photos to sell from just as many millions of contributors. All of those photos don’t have to be “good.” Most of them are not. Nevertheless, the best ones have been published too often. That takes them out of the running when it comes to attracting sophisticated and higher-paying Enterprise customers.
Images are not widgets. They have no monolithic utility. Collectively, their use is infinitely variable, and, yet, each one is subjectively unique. That fact holds true despite the gazillions of images made every day using photographic technology. But simply using photographic technology does not guarantee a commercially useful photograph (or a work of art for that matter). For instance, using a smartphone to record a child’s first words or a “note to self,” is not the same as a studio engineer laying down Beyoncé’s latest track, although they use the same digital sound-recording technology. A “selfie” is not the same as a studio photographer’s self-portrait; nor is a snapshot or a “pixt” the equal of a carefully composed and executed photograph, although they use the same digital photographic technology.
The commercial value of an original photograph can only be determined by how and where it is published and how well it conveys either a social, political, or commercial message to its intended audience. I’ll add emotional messages, too, for art’s sake. And in no way is it a perfunctory exercise. Therefore, images cannot be packaged, priced, and sold like consumer products. Even the value of original art depends, to a large extent, on exclusivity; i.e., what a buyer is willing to pay for the relative rarity of a physical print.
Ultimately, a buyer cannot expect any measure of exclusivity for a photo that costs only a dollar. A seller’s right — a creator’s right, not a middleman’s — is to demand a price that suits one’s own economic sustainability, as much as it reflects commercial value, or utility, to the buyer.
Is Photo Piracy a Problem?
Piracy is not a big problem in a Commercial Photo marketplace because publishers know they would be exposed to severe economic penalties if they infringe a registered copyright. What it means for a copyright to be registered will be addressed in a moment. In the meantime, infringing means copying and publishing a photograph without permission, attribution, and payment.
Infringers — thieves really — know they are liable (in a lawsuit) for either the actual damages they’ve caused the creator (i.e., lost profits that would have otherwise been earned) or statutory damages. Statutory damages are exacted by federal law. The United States government mandates $150,000 per infringement, if proved willfull. (Enterprise-level publishers can hardly plead naiveté; it would have to be willful). That’s $150,000 per photograph or, say, $1,500,000 if a successful lawsuit involves ten photographs.
Although every photograph is copyrighted by default, from the moment of its inception, no copyright is registered by default. Registering a photograph’s inherent copyright requires its creator to take an extra administrative step. That extra step gives creators tremendous economic leverage, to keep potential infringers at bay.
It’s pretty straightforward to register a copyright. It doesn’t cost much either. But it’s inconvenient. It is, however, a seamless step in an automated SaaS workflow (the Silicon Valley acronym for Software as a Service). The problem of piracy virtually disappears with the introduction of registration.
Routine copyright registration is a powerful magnet for creators, just as it is a powerful deterrent to infringers. It gives creators the keys to the courthouse, so to speak; which ensures their means to pay a lawyer to prosecute infringers in civil court. It provides a financial incentive for lawyers to take cases on a contingency basis because they know they are likely to win. But infringers would go unchallenged, in the absence of registration, because few photographers could afford the cost of legal prosecution. Registration removes the barrier of legal fees.
Back in the day, despite being fragmented throughout the US and Europe (with a lesser presence in Asia and elsewhere), traditional photo agencies made good money for themselves and the freelance photographers they represented. Agencies flourished from the 1940s through the 1990s; but their heyday lasted from about 1970 to 1995. In fact, agencies soared to prominence when most major magazines, particularly when those owned by Time-Life followed suit, divested themselves of staff photographers to save money, and began to hire freelancers instead. True agencies acted in the best interests of freelance photographers. They served buyers well, too, because pricing was based on the principles of copyright ownership. Agency representation of photographers assured both exclusivity and high quality to publishers.
Some agencies marketed proprietary collections of stock photos. Others represented a “stable” of freelance photographers shooting editorial and commercial assignments. These were not wire services. Wire services, like The Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) hired photographers who, thus, became employees, not freelancers. Employers own what their employees create; hence the employers owned the copyrights.
The wire services catered to newspapers, sometimes magazines. Most agencies re-licensed residuals to all kinds of buyers on behalf of the photographers who shot them. Photos were all shot on film, of course. Incidentally, the AP actually goes back to Pony Express days in mid-19th- century America, founded as a non-profit cooperative by several newspapers. Starting in the mid-1990s, the Corbis and Getty consolidation binge began. Agencies were gobbled up.
No one, at the time, questioned the absurd proposition that the best way to serve customers and reward shareholders was to devalue intellectual property, to ignore photographs as an asset class. But that’s what the middlemen did. The upshot was to drive away high-end commercial business from an emerging online marketplace. It was a zero-sum game. All photographs, irrespective of quality and exclusivity, got lumped together in one bargain-basement bin and sold to Retail customers like a commodity. No one understood that technology could be used to increase productivity and simplify rights-managed pricing for the already existing and more lucrative Enterprise segment, which was left with its offline workflow and its transactions to be memorialized on paper.
When Corbis (Bill Gates’s company) and Getty Images each imposed a consumer-facing business model (i.e., high volume, low price), they set the bar low for the entire industry. They would tell you, rights-managed pricing was useless in an online economy. But the move they made to consolidate retail-consumer sales blinded them to any kind of vision for long-term industry growth. They simply knew nothing about photography.
The world began to look less picturesque to pro photographers. Buyers, having gotten used to paying low prices for pre-shot pictures, now expected to pay lower fees for commissioned jobs too. Of course, Enterprise-commercial buyers, now that they, too, were publishing content online, expected it to cost less simply because it was online, instead of in print.
To replenish their “stock” when a given set of pictures in their respective inventories became too stale or outdated for further licensing, Corbis and Getty aggressively recruited new photographer-contributors. Some of them willingly relinquished their copyrights to photos they might create in the future by signing work-for-hire contracts; which meant they gave up ownership — they gave up their business proprietorships too — in exchange for a minor measure of economic security. Work-for-hire contracts forced them into an employee-like situation. They lost their copyrights but were afforded none of the health or retirement benefits or any other kinds of rights normally due to employees. Yet they were now expected to shoot various kinds of subject matter under the aegis of Getty or Corbis. Even more egregious, no one warned them that the fees once commanded by their photographs, which they expected to share, would be cut deliberately and so sharply.
Getty and Corbis anticipated market demand and told them what to shoot. But it’s reasonable to assume that not many established professionals heeded the siren’s call. Most of the photographers who had been represented by agencies, now that they had been acquired, had already run for the hills and taken their photographs (on film) with them, rather than let them be syndicated by middlemen who would deliberately devalue them.
Unlike buying a record company, which generally includes a library full of songs and valuable publishing rights, or unlike buying a Hollywood movie studio that comes with a library of classic and feature films, and other than some notably large collections of timeless and historically valuable photographs that were already in the public domain, the photographers who had been represented by agencies owned their photographs outright. The agencies did not own any of their pictures. You might say Getty and Corbis got caught wearing the emperor’s new clothes.
When a gap became evident in any given vendor’s photo collection for one kind of subject matter or another, the vendor would sometimes buy an entire archive of film (color slides plus black-and-white negatives) from a photographer who had specialized in one of those categories; e.g., pop music or astronomy or sports. Vendors also began to digitize entire existing collections for on-line licensing. But most top shooters gave up any expectation of earning income from stock after bearing witness to the Corbis-Getty onslaught and buying spree. From that time on, they relied solely on contracted photo assignments to earn a living.
Today, the industry is undergoing another round of consolidation. Beijing-based Visual China Group (VCG) bought Corbis and 500px. Getty, having been bounced back and forth between private two equity companies, Hellman & Friedman and The Carlyle Group, is once again in the private hands of the Getty family and its fortune. Adobe bought Fotolia, to gobble up more quotidian content, and has since struck distribution deals with EyeEm and Stocksy. Getty, too, has a distribution deal with EyeEm; another example of content overlap. ImageBrief’s implausible low-balling business model folded like a cheap shotgun. (Told you so!) So did Blend Images. And Twenty20 can’t make economic ends meet. Even Flickr, the enthusiasts’ photo-sharing site, was bought by SmugMug. But Stock Photo startups continue to pop up like mushrooms in an investment-market mulch. I predict that they, too, will fall victim to an industry already cannibalizing itself; big fish eating small fish to acquire more content until there is none left; and they become so constipated they can’t swim.
To wit, VCG, immediately after acquiring the unprofitable Corbis company from Bill Gates for pennies on the dollar, turned right around and made a distribution deal with Getty. Remember, though, Corbis had been Getty’s biggest rival. Getty’s then CEO Jonathan Klein boasted sardonically, “Lovely to get the milk, the cream, the cheese, the yoghurt and the meat without buying the cow.”
Economic Death by a Thousand Cuts
Google may be the only company big enough to bully Getty Images, and with as few scruples about intellectual property attribution. Getty was powerless to stop Google from “scraping” photos off of its exchange and letting Google Photo’s own users freely copy them without giving credit to, or paying, the photographers who created them.
Getty sued Google. But, after a while, instead of risking loss in litigation, Getty inked a cooperative distribution deal with — wait for it! — Google itself. Google’s VIEW IMAGE button is now a VISIT IMAGE button that links back to Getty. But Google is still free to use Getty content in all of its own products and services. Emphasis is on the word free.
Guess who came out ahead on that deal! Photographers have no say in transactions like that, despite the fact that they own the copyrights to the photographs in question. This is just one more reason why professionals are loathe to “join the crowd” (i.e., to crowd-source).
Incidentally, along with millions of other culturally iconic, previously American-owned photographs, the Chinese now have digital distribution rights to, and perhaps outright ownership of, the famous 1989 Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” photograph. Many photographs like that one could disappear at the discretion of the Chinese government, now that VCG controls their distribution.
Making photo distribution deals with sub-vendors to get access to more content is cheaper than buying whole companies and their archives outright. But it further dilutes the income of contributing photographers. And, as already stated, such deals overlap content from one vendor’s inventory to another’s, all hurled together into one big bargain-basement bin, making it harder still for buyers to discover original content.
Photographers who contribute their work to any given vendor’s inventory can expect to see their work distributed to additional vendors, even competing vendors, whether they like it or not. For example, EyeEm’s collection is now distributed by both Getty and Adobe. Contributors may rationalize that more buyers will see their work, download it, and publish it. But any extra income they might hope to receive is offset by progressively diminishing royalties, as an ever-expanding hierarchy of sub-vendors takes a percentage of a percentage of a percentage out of the original deal the photographer struck with whichever vendor was higher up the food chain.
Typically, a contributing photographer earns less than $300 — per year! That’s if they earn anything at all. Each and every professional photographer loses tens of thousands of dollars in income, year in and year out by keeping their content out of circulation, away from online vendors who would rush to commodify it. That’s billions of dollars in combined revenue lost annually.
Fixing Jobs Fixes Stock
Vendors, who wish they could consolidate pro photographers and monetize residuals, would love to take a share of revenue from independently-contracted jobs too.
Not only have the incumbents cost professionals the income they once earned by licensing their residuals (as stock photos) through photo agents, they are also responsible for driving down the fees that professionals earn for their bread-and-butter business shooting jobs. Pros nurse a deep-seated antipathy for the way vendors have encouraged dysfunctional pricing practices to evolve.
That said, pros are keenly aware of the economic value of their residuals. They also know how limited their reach is into the marketplace, with little hope of monetizing residuals because they’re so fragmented, one-man bands that photographers are. Individuals don’t have the wherewithal, the collective clout economicaly or otherwise, to put their work in front of as many potential buyers as a well capitalized aggregator can. But every effort the incumbents have made to convince professionals to contribute their work for online sales has meant looking through the lens of crowd-sourcing.
Notwithstanding how crowd-sourcing hurts photographers, it hurts commercial publishers too. It’s a matter of tens of thousands of highly-curated contributors who serve commercial Enterprise buyers versus millions of random contributors who serve many millions more Retail consumers. It’s the availability of exclusive premium content at rights-managed prices versus mediocre content at commodified prices. These are two separate market segments. They don’t play in the same sandbox.
Instead of making empty promises aimed at attracting professionals, only to funnel them into a commodified sales channel clotted with amateurs, a new and parallel channel must be created for exclusive use by commercial sellers and buyers.
The key to creating a discrete catalog of premium, professionally produced and dynamically replenished stock photos is to abandon the idea that professionals will ever PROACTIVELY contribute their work.
Even if they didn’t expect to be ruthlessly exploited, it is unlikely that pros, who are busy shooting jobs, could regularly find time to curate, caption, and upload their residuals. Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that artificial intelligence can do the trick. AI is not up to the task of professional editing and curating, which relies on the unpredictable subjectivity of humans — and talent. We’re talking about licensing art. The real question is, How do you keep the riffraff out? How do you get a critical mass of pro photographers and their premium residuals onto a single platform where publishers can easily find commercially useful images; images for which they are willing to pay fair market prices to publish?
The answer is, once photographers and their existing clients are connected online, residuals can routinely be captured passively during transactions. There is no need to solicit proactive contributions when content aggregation is a routine part of their interactive jobs workflow with clients, accomplished seamlessly during the electronic execution of licenses, invoices, deliveries, and payments. The answer is one platform that does it all.
Self-assigned, or personal, projects are captured too. Photographers are willing to tacitly cooperate because their residuals are no longer commodified. Instead, the AI Pricing Engine uses individualized criteria to make each individual photographer more more profitable while keeping within the confines of each buyer’s budget. The creative side is thus linked to administrative fulfillment on the business side.
In other words, fixing jobs fixes stock. It grows the size of the Commercial Photo market overall, while increasing revenue in both segments (Enterprise & Retail). Once connected online, once agency is restored both literally and figuratively, it’s easy for photographers to see for themselves how their clients will gain long-desired access to residuals at prices that make everybody smile.
The Holistic Solution
Photographers encounter too much friction, as artists, trying to navigate the world of business and shoot pictures at the same time. Their plight is aggravated by having little more than 1995 desktop software to help with back-office workflow. They’ve been forgotten.
Not only is workflow off-line, we’re talking about a different kind of workflow than that used to create invoices for ordinary consumer transactions. Each invoice for a B2B commercial photo shoot (stock photo transactions too) is a contract. And each one includes a myriad of arcane line-item billed expenses that do not appear on ordinary retail invoices.
There is another issue in play: pricing itself. Whether a photographer has been in business for two weeks, working out of the trunk of her car, or shooting for twenty-five years with a 9,000 sq. ft. studio and a full staff of production assistants, one questions prevails: “How much do I charge?” The answer is not only different for each photographer but for each job. That was always guesswork.
Without a modern SaaS solution (i.e., Software as a Service), back-office inefficiencies cause professionals to lose money and lose clients:
- Photographers don’t know how much to bill because different clients want different publication rights (some more modest than others), and they have different budgets (some bigger than others).
- Different photographers have different production costs and overhead, thus different profit margins.
- Photographers easily forget which ones of dozens of their idiosyncratic line-item production expenses to, first, estimate, and then mark up and bill to their clients.
- Photographers cannot call a lawyer every time they pick up a camera, to compose a written copyright license for each and every job they shoot.
- Neither photographers nor publishers are reminded when a license expires.
- Various state sales tax rules are applied haphazardly, subjecting photographers to legal exposure and punishing fines.
- Electronic photo delivery to clients, after each job, is fragmented by countless FTP sites and distrust of Dropbox et al. Some photographers still put hard drives in a FedEx box.
- Clients wait too long to receive invoices because photographers are several days into one job and weeks behind with “paperwork” from previous jobs. Cashflow makes sucking sounds.
- Photographers wait even longer to get paid (by paper check via snail mail). Alternatively, it’s counterproductive for photographers to subscribe to various on-line payment apps used by as many different clients.
The trick is to passively and seamlessly capture the curated “selects” that photographers deliver electronically to their clients after each job they shoot (for which they are paid immediately and electronically), and then monetize their outtakes and rights-reverted residuals at sustainable prices (with each photographer’s permission, of course).
Prices are determined for each individual stock-photo transaction by each photographer’s cost of production in tandem with each buyer’s budget and usage requirements. This is monitored by artificial intelligence.
Corbis and Getty bought photo agencies to get more stock photos. There are no more agencies to buy; and the photographers once represented by agencies have scattered to the wind. They are the professionals who know better than to allow their art to be exploited economically. They won’t deal with any company that relies on crowd-sourcing to update inventory. Ironically, for those companies, crowd-sourcing is anathema to the best-paying stock photo buyers.
The best news is, as soon as imagemakers can electronically invoice, deliver, and get paid for jobs on one platform, fresh content will flow unimpeded from the very same artists who were alienated by the incumbents. And with the inauguration of the platform, not only will residuals be captured and monetized, so too will the workflow itself that produces jobs.
Default Curation (Pre-curation)
As a further draw for photographers, to get them connected on this platform, it will integrate their administrative workflow with their creative workflow.
Practically all professionals use either Adobe Lightroom® or Capture One® to cull a set of “selects” (another industry term of art) from amongst the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of pictures they shoot on any given photo assignment. They use these software tools to weed out duplicates, mis-flashes, out-of-focus frames, poor exposures, shots of their feet, and images that are irrelevant to the client. Once these “outtakes” are eliminated, the selects are treated to post-production editing. That means they are fine-tuned for composition, color correction, cropping, retouching, and special effects. These perfectly polished pictures are finally delivered to the client.
Once it’s possible for digital selects to be delivered electronically via the same platform that manages back-office workflow, including billings & payments, residuals are not only captured “on the fly” but also backed-up to the cloud. The platform acts like a filter, or a net, trapping the best images.
These images are, in effect, pre-vetted by the photographers who created them and, at the same time, by the clients who commissioned them. The result is a continuously updated inventory of residuals, a photographic archive collectively representing each individual photographer’s most precious assets; their value vouched for by the entire set of clients worldwide who authorized their production in the first place.
This archive is also immune to the kinds of catastophes that defeat the inherent lack of security in home/office/studio computers and back-up devices: physical theft, fire, flood, earthquake, tornado — you name it. These precious assets are protected by their very nature of existing off-site and online, another value-added service adding magnetic appeal to the platform.
When a photographer’s client receives e-notification that a job is ready to be delivered, one mouse-click accepts the photographer’s Terms & Conditions, performs the download, and deposits payment into the photographer’s bank account. All automatically.
When using a back-office workflow that is automated and integrated with a creative workflow, a photographer’s selects are imbued electronically with metadata. That means the written text describing the Terms & Conditions of each publication license granted (i.e., the “legalese”) will not only be embedded in a Virtual Paper Trail™ of documentation for each and every photo shoot, but also embedded into each and every digital photo itself.
When a client’s license expires for any given photograph, or, as the rights reserved by its creator pertain to any unpublished photos made during a photo assignment, online permissions can be obtained by the same client, or subsequent clients, to license and re-license the photo(s) in question at fair market, rights-managed prices. The Pricing Engine algorithm suggests a figure in accordance with each individual photographer’s economic profile vis à vis the buyer’s budget. For example, the algorithm will use answers to a few simple questions posed to each photographer when first registering to use the platform:
- What salary (annual take-home pay) do you wish to earn?
- How many jobs do you expect to shoot each year?
- How much money goes into a savings/retirement account each year?
- What’s your annual cost of business? (A checklist of direct and indirect overhead expenses is presented.)
Each seller’s data are analayzed in conjunction with each buyer’s budget and history of payments throughout the network in real time and for each separate transaction.
A modest commission is paid to the platform’s proprietor, with each download, in exchange for solving the three problems topmost on every photographer’s mind:
- How can I manage my business? [including monetizing my residuals, while spending less time behind a desk and more time behind a camera]
- How much should I charge? [to regain competitive control over pricing my own work, considering how each job is different]
- How can I compose a copyright license on each invoice? [. . . to protect my IP. I can’t call a lawyer every time I pick up my camera to shoot a job]
The platform is comprised of a SaaS application for photographers, to automate their highly idiosyncratic back-office workflow. It “talks” to an e-commerce stock photo Exchange for publishers. The connection forged between both sides of this B2B marketplace becomes an interactive Digital Asset Management Network (DAMN). It provides reciprocal access to actionable market intelligence about content availability, distribution, and pricing.
The Pricing Engine is an inherent part of the platform. It calculates a separate line-item assignment fee, based on each photographer’s professional profile plus a separate line-item usage fee that corresponds to the publication rights granted to a buyer for each commissioned job. The platform’s proprietor, the broker, does not pay royalties to photographers but, instead, accepts commissions in exchange for acting as an electronic licensing agent. That’s the honest way of accounting.
With information symmetry available to the broker, a fragmented army of freelancers — all generals, and no privates — instantly becomes a consolidated workforce resulting in radical productivity gains across the board for commissioned photo shoots in tandem with a new and dynamically replenished source of premium residuals for commercial publishers.
Ultimately, the platform is imbued with the same kind of authority for pricing photographic services that Google enjoys for ranking Search results. The accumulation of information used to price jobs is extrapolated to allow stock photo pricing based on usage fees. Because it excludes any assignment fee, stock photos will still cost less than made-to-order shoots, and be faster to retrieve.
Commercial photographers are disproportionately few, yet their influence is global.
Working pros number about 125,000 worldwide. They are one-man bands. Thus, they are fragmented. But, together, they generate more than $6.5B each year in fees for jobs. None of that revenue is monetized by a third-party agent.
With an AI matrix in place implemented by a broker/agent (i.e., a Pricing Engine), fees will inevitably increase, even without the additional revenue expected by freeing up a vast reservoir of residuals.
Today, residuals are practically invisible to buyers because they are stored on hard-drive arrays in photo studios and home offices, hidden like cash stuffed under so many mattresses. These assets are NOT available online. They earn dividends for no one. It is estimated that residuals are worth an additional $3B in sales annually.
AI Levels the Economic Playing Field
Photography’s value is memorialized by the familiar axiom: one picture is worth a thousand words. As far as commercial-product mindshare goes, that’s undeniably true. Think of advertising without pictures. Such obviously inherent value cannot be downplayed. But its monetary value has indeed been downplayed, albeit irrationally.
Most well rounded photographers can’t roll downhill when it comes to pricing their own work.
Nobody picks up a camera just to start a small business. Photographers hope, first and foremost, to support their art. They hope it will support them back. But they have a hard time figuring out how much to charge for any given job, let alone for a stock photo. They rarely have enough information, or the right information, to calculate an assignment fee (also called a camera fee or shooting fee, to cover their physical effort and time) plus a usage fee, always billed in tandem, to compensate for the commercial value a client receives by publishing a photographer’s intellectual property. It has been a long-standing industry practice to separate and itemize these fees, to keep the bottom line fair and balanced. Notwithstanding all the other “administrivia” that preoccupies back-office tasks, coming up with a bottom-line price for a “simple” photo shoot (including taxes, creative fees, and marked-up line-item expenses) is as complex as budgeting a scene in a major motion picture.
On the other hand, royalty-free pricing is simple. Too simple. It is arbitrary and gratuitous for all but the most unsophisticated and least discriminating buyers. This kind of smorgasbord approach to stock photo sales (i.e., all you can eat for one low price) doesn’t satisfy those with a taste and a budget for haute cuisine prepared by a top chef.
A Pricing Engine, however, running on an AI matrix determines a fair market price without aiming too high or aiming too low, and without aiming at the middle. It acts on market intelligence to provide an optimal price for both seller and buyer. It calculates the actual commercial value to the buyer for any given photograph by weighing production costs, profit margins, and how many people will ultimately see and be influenced by a published picture. It looks at the collective history of previous transactions between sellers and buyers in the network.
Chicago GSB Professor & Nobel laureate Eugene Fama famously said, “Prices reflect all available information.” His theory about pricing Wall Street stock market assets holds true in the consumer-retail stock photo market too.
Other than licking a finger and holding it up to see which way the wind blows, there never had been a way to price photography both competitively and fairly. That’s changed. An easy-to-use business-automation app, one that includes an AI pricing matrix integrated with an e-commerce photo exchange and distributed FREE to photographers, self-selects for use by professionals and their Enterprise clients. Social-event photographers — retail transactions — are excluded by default because only commercial pros have use for a tool that bills licensing fees to publishers. Conversely, only publishers pay licensing fees to commercial photographers. Ergo, self-selection!
Enterprise publishers recognize that the best source for stock photos is the same platform they use to work with the professionals they already trust and hire to shoot jobs.
The e-commerce exchange for photo buyers will not look much different or operate very differently than any existing exchange. It will be just like visiting, say, Getty Images’ website. However, the content will be entirely different because it comes from an exclusive and better curated source.
One secret to a great marketplace is a great middleman. Today’s middlemen didn’t so much disrupt the photo business as buy it. That didn’t make them great; just big.
Years ago, having bought their way in, they sidestepped organic growth and technological innovation to pick the low-hanging fruit of a consumer-facing opportunity in a booming e-commerce environment. They understood consumer markets perfectly well, but had no hands-on photography experience. They let the lucrative business-to-business segment (B2B) of Commercial Photo waste away because of a fundamental error. It was, and still is, a failure to appreciate that both sides of a B2B marketplace — both “B”s — have equal standing; that photographers and publishers are equally customers. And in the wake of their rapid expansion via the serial acquisition of photo agencies, these self-imposed middlemen left an institutional knowledge vacuum: a photographic memory loss.
The Commercial Photo industry is not just about consumers. It cannot be run like a typical retail-consumer marketplace; not if success is tied to productivity and growth. Commercial photographers and their clients have always done business directly with each other; sometimes with an agent’s help but always business to business. (The relative sizes of the seller’s business to the buyer’s is irrelevant when dealing in intellectual property). But in a world where middlemen think they are the sellers, not the photographers, and their hubris downgrades the value of intellectual property to a commodity, the marketplace is undermined. Sellers and buyers are underserved.
There are two Bs in B2B representing two sets of customers who do business with each other, facilitated by the 2 in the middle. In Commercial Photo they are:
- Commercial photographers who create and own intellectual property
- Enterprise publishers who license it for their own commercial use
Both sets of customers complain loud and clear:
- Photographers say, “We lost control over pricing our own work.”
- Publishers say, “Stock photo catalogs offer too many choices, and too few good ones.”
Commercial Photo Marketplace Facts:
- ~150,000 photographers worldwide earn fees (not so-called “royalties”) for shooting jobs, commissioned directly by their own clients; namely commercial brands and media companies.
- Photographers are conferred professional status, not by themselves or even by dint of their own talent, but by their clients who have already vetted and paid them to shoot commercial jobs for publication.
- Annual fees for commissioned jobs of more than $6.5 billion (on top of billed expenses and other ancillary revenue) are fragmented and underpriced.
- No company dedicated to, or capable of, increasing revenue monetizes commissioned jobs.
- Photographers create residuals while shooting jobs.
- Residuals (a term of art for premium stock photos) are worth an estimated $3B in additional annual revenue. Residuals are not monetized; not by photographers, not by middlemen.
- Commercial photographers deliberately decline to contribute residuals to the stock photo pipeline despite high demand from publishers to be relicensed after initial reproduction rights expire, or when (as is often the case) only a limited license was required in the first place.
- Brands & media need stock photos whenever a looming publication deadline or a tight budget makes it impractical to hire a photographer for a made-to-order job.
- Billings for pre-shot, crowd-sourced stock photos ($4.5B annual revenue) have been static for a decade.
- Publishers (buyers) say stock photo quality is undercut by the reliance of middlemen on crowd-sourcing.
- Photographers complain they spend too much time behind a desk and not enough time behind a camera. Their back office, for the most part, runs on paper — offline. They are too often late sending cobbled-together invoices, using many kinds of non-dedicated software tools. Existing software is missing either a copyright-licensing capability or an accurate accounting of industry-specific line-item billings — or both. And they must wait for publishers to pay by paper check, resulting in poor cashflow.
- Despite the fact that publishers and photographers generate billions of dollars in revenue each year doing business with each other, not one company collects or analyzes the transactional data that pass back and forth between them; the essential condition for fair market pricing of intellectual property online.
Strength Through Administrative Consolidation
Considering that Adobe touches the work of virtually every professional photographer and videographer in the world, do they wonder why they cannot garner default licensing-and-distribution rights to all of the residuals and outtakes that pass through their own “Creative Cloud?”
Adobe’s Creative Cloud envelops, as its name implies, a creative workflow. But Adobe (also Getty Images and Shutterstock et al.) critically lacks the wherewithal to integrate their expertise on the creative side with an administrative workflow, to connect imagemakers directly with paying customers online. Otherwise, they could capture and analyze symmetrical data; i.e., the transactions flowing between sellers and buyers. They could capture residuals, too, as they flow through the same virtual filter. But they are incapable of creating such an infrastructure without pivoting to such an extent that they would cannibalize their existing business model and revenue.
Technology has made taking pictures effortless.
No one has used technology to make the BUSINESS of taking pictures effortless.
If the most tried-and-true investment thesis is to take an essential industry that’s not digital, and make it digital, it’s not hard to see how connecting photographers online with their existing clients will do the following:
- Consolidate photographers on one proprietary platform: a virtual content cartel — without the price fixing — surrounded by an alligator-filled moat that denies the best imagery in the world to Getty, Adobe, and Shutterstock
- Consolidate Digital Asset Management for publishers
- Automate complex licensing transactions (incl. composing copyright language)
- Synchronize rights-managed pricing with the value of content (i.e., the value TO THE BUYERS, not what photogrpahers think they’re “worth”)
- Implement predictive image search
- Track publication provenance & term-of-license expirations (with reminders)
- Automate federal copyright registration
- Cultivate & maintain long-term client relationships
- Protect intellectual property rights for photographers
- Foster exclusivity in the stock photo pipeline for publishers, who must protect their brand identities
- Institutionalize electronic billings & payments industry-wide.
There can’t be three Facebooks or six Googles. Those companies became institutions because, ultimately, there remained only one of each in its class. Right now, there is no “go-to” platform, no home for the worldwide community of commercial photographers and publishers to congregate.
No company monetizes either commissioned jobs or pre-shot residuals, let alone both. But a broker situated between commercial photographers and their Enterprise clients, one who recognizes their equal standing as customers, sits smack in the middle of a highly lucrative revenue stream, where it can capture actionable market intelligence — content too — while automating complex transactions, including electronic billings and payments.
Online integration of the stock photo workflow with the commissioned-jobs workflow is a new idea: a single proprietary platform where creators and publishers want to be; where they are connected directly to each other within a B2B marketplace network. Such a network need not support retail-consumer transactions or try to compete on that front to be stunningly profitable.
Transactions and content are captured passively, seamlessly, and cooperatively during routine electronic file transfers (job delivery & fulfillment) — part of the workflow. This initiates a dynamic cascade of premium residuals for exclusive monetization in the stock photo pipeline and standardizes a rights-managed AI pricing protocol.
To be sure, the emergence of a crowd-sourced, consumer-to-business stock photo sales channel, little more than a decade ago, created an entirely new class of customers; a new market segment, in fact, comprised of local small businesses: shopkeepers, freelancers, bloggers, and start-ups with no previous need to publish pictures, let alone the wherewithal to pay for them. Suddenly, they needed cheap photos to fill up their websites, blogs, and Powerpoint presentations. Retail middlemen stepped in to capitalize on this need. Kudos to them.
At first, enterprise publishers got a windfall, paying the same cheap licensing fees for photos as retail consumers. But their advantage was vitiated by a crowd-sourced supply chain that ultimately led to photobesity: an increasingly bloated and stale inventory that left enterprise publishers underserved.
The incumbents believe that revenue is possible only through high-volume sales at low prices. That philosophy is belied by the fact that they are unable to increase prices and grow revenue, despite an obvious growth in demand for photography. Their error was, and continues to be, recklessly lumping B2B content together with C2B content into one bargain-basement bin.
To paraphrase Facebook’s CEO, if you move fast and break things, you have an obligation to fix them! Getty Images, for instance, is bullish about crowd-sourcing. But they are the biggest bull in the china shop, clumsily shattering everything valuable in sight. Many feckless startups — call then matadors — have dared to face the bull, entering the china shop to pick up the pieces, only to be gored on the horns of a dilemma.
Fixing a dysfunctional marketplace requires an acknowledgement that photographers own what they create, and that their ownership of intellectual property and its commercial value are the basis for industry-wide revenue. Crowd-sourcing is useless in the Enterprise segment of the Commercial Photo marketplace. Only pro-sourcing will do.
Such a shift in thinking makes it obvious that connecting photographers directly online with their existing clientele disrupts the role of middlemen like Getty, Adobe, and Shutterstock. A new kind of intermediary, a broker armed with data (actionable market intelligence) will use technology to go back to the future. It both literally and figuratively restores agency to photographers and publishers.
This is an opportunity for bona fide domain expertise in photography combined with Silicon Valley startup experience to engage professional practitioners and their clients with the kind of product-market fit that builds a tall fence around the most premium content in the world.
Photographers want a tool they can use, instead of a tool that uses them. Publishers want more dynamic and more exclusive content. Economic and creative outcomes for photographers and publishers alike are radically transformed by building the platform where all industry participants want to be. Exploiting the incumbents’ own vulnerabilities turns the Commercial Photo industry — indispensable as it is — into a sustainable, self-perpetuating and dynamic cartel (without price fixing). See ya later aggregator!