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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lying about Photo Licensing

What was your annual income from photography last year? What was your average license fee? What kind of terms do you agree to? Do you ever give away work for free, or shoot an event gratis?

If you're like most people, your answers are highly unreliable, and most likely weighted towards the kinds of answers you would like to be true, especially if you believe you can give a "bump" in the right direction for the industry as a whole.

Unreliable answers from survey participants goes with the territory in the data analysis world, but in the photo licensing world, is it enough to distrust the underlying assumptions we have about the photo industry, such as the total market size, or the role of semi-pros and consumers?

The question rises to a new level given a similar awakening within the radio industry, according to this article in the New York Times (Dec 16, 2009). New, provocative and surprising insight about people's actual listening habits, versus what they claimed they were doing, has had dramatic effects on advertising rates, and even the existence of certain kinds of broadcasting.

According to the Times article, what has propelled the industry into a flurry of self-examination was a recent conversion from "measuring ratings through surveys to monitoring listeners electronically using so-called Portable People Meters."

Among the findings, the Classical Music market dropped by 10.7%, Talk Radio by 2.6% (and consists of 80% conservative commentary), and more people listen to "light rock" and "easy listening" than they ever admitted before.

"People tended to look at it almost like an election -- they would vote for the things they liked," said Jaye Albright, an industry consultant with Albright & O'Malley, a radio consultancy.

Classical music, being one of the largest music forms and radio station formats affected by the new data, is probably most closely associated with the photo industry because of the impassioned opinions by its own advocates. According to the Times article, classical music is perceived by its advocates as being an important civilizing force, and an "art form that is extremely related and important to our cultural history," Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, said.

But, as the objective and indifferent truth-telling meters indicates, strong belief in the culture and the importance of the art for does not necessarily translate to people's actual behaviors.

Saying you support a point of view, even though it's not backed up by actions, is one thing. Another is that people actually engage in behaviors they wouldn't admit to.

For example, more people listen to oldies, country and "light rock" than they have admitted in surveys. Especially men. In fact, under the survey format, 34.7% of men volunteered that they listened to soft rock, but when they were using the meters, it turns out that 40.1% did -- a 16% jump. This has a huge impact on the rates advertisers are willing to pay, and what stations are willing to broadcast. And this affects where investment goes, and so on.

Indeed, these discrepancies are consistent with findings within the television industry, when it moved away from volunteers hand-writing their viewing habits to being given electronic monitoring devices. As Arbitron (the ratings company) put it, "people overstate listening to stations they felt reflected better taste."

As an objective photo industry analyst, I immediately see an identical phenomenon in the photo industry. I've long argued that most in the photo sector use unreliable data collection methods, survey models, and sample sizes that have never represented the population at large.

To wit, most pro photographers and trade organizations cite two common sources for their industry data. Cradoc Software, makers of FotoQuote, a software application that helps photographers come up with tools to help price their work based on prior sales figures they collect from the industry. However, their data is collected from pro photographers who volunteer licensing information, which, as we should have learned, is highly unreliable. And it's made worse by the unrepresentative sample size of the population of those who license images.

Other perceived reputable sources include surveys done by trade publications like Photo District News, and those from Jim Pickerell of selling-stock.com. In those cases, data is collected from either traditional stock agencies or self-proclaimed pro photographers (as defined as someone whose income from photography is more than 50% of their total annual income). The fundamental premise here is that they are the prime and statistically viable representatives of the bulk of all licensed images.

This then raises this disturbing question (one that I've been raising for years): what should one make of his analysis if it turns out that agencies only make up 60% of the market? 30%? 15%? Or Less? Would stock agencies start focusing attention on consumers? Would non-photo related media companies start eying photo agencies and social networks as a new, untapped source for potential revenue? Might trade associations and publications shift focus to the consumer market?

Perhaps so, but they can't do it just yet. Knowing that something is wrong with the old data does not draw of map of what the correct data looks like. Real numbers still need to be gathered.

And we're getting closer to that all the time. Using image-recognition technologies from PicScout and Idée, the web can be crawled and images can be examined to determine their source. PicScout has the advantage here in two ways. First, they have already fingerprinted and indexed most images from all the major stock agencies, as well as the larger microstock sites. In one fell swoop, they could examine images used commercial websites and calculate this critical piece of information:

What ratio of licensible images can be attributed to a stock agency?

When I say "licensible images," I'm referring to image uses where there is no legal ambiguity. That is, I'm not talking about social networks, photo-sharing sites, personal web pages or other sites that might host images in a manner that could potentially be permitted under Fair Use.

(For the record, using someone else's photo on a photo-sharing site is not easily defined as "infringement" because it depends on how the image is displayed, or other claims made by the individual that put it there. Many such uses are protected under Fair Use, as they involve critique, demonstration, education, or other kinds of factors that may not constitute infringement. our goal here is to examine only sites where images use are not legally ambiguous.)

This quick snapshot of information might also give us a sense of which agencies are taking which slice of the pie. Are Microstocks really eating the mega agencies' lunches? What about the Creative Commons?

Obviously, this is not going to tell us about license fees, or whether the photos are sourced from pro photographers or consumers, or whether images were stolen or licensed. But, we can get a far more reliable picture of what percentage of commercial images are actually from stock agencies.

While PicScout is currently in the best position to do this analysis, and that the data is useful, there are caveats, as it suffers from two major setbacks: 1) it only examines "commercial" sites, and 2) it does not track real-time use of editorial images sufficiently to have a reliable effect on analysis results. These caveats are important because they cannot be used to draw conclusions about the industry as a whole--only about the use of commercial images buy commercial websites.

And while commercial images and uses are very important, it should be noted that the editorial market is far and away much larger than the commercial market for images, largely because more content is used, sites publish more frequently, and in larger volumes. It is also more common to use images from sources other than major stock agencies, since the abundance of such content is higher, license fees are lower, and liability risk for infringement is negligible. Gathering data about image use for editorial uses requires more frequent crawling, more frequent updates of editorial imagery served by both agencies and photographers and underlying technologies that PicScout does not say they perform.

But again, these caveats don't invalidate findings in the commercial sector. In fact, I think it'd be more like the quiet, soothing alarm one uses to wake up than the blaring buzzer of a dime-store clock. But either way you look at it, the industry does need to wake up, and this data can have the most sweeping effects on the general understanding we have about the photo industry like nothing we've seen before.

If so, what happens next?

In my last blog entry, titled, Weathering Climate Change within the Photo Industry, I posed the question, "How would the industry behave if it turned out that their assumptions about the industry was entirely wrong?"

Since it is fast becoming within our technological grasp to actually uncover this information, I strongly suggest that the pundits within the sector consider that question. Take a long, hard introspective look at such beliefs and consider how strategies would change if it turns out that its core understandings and assumptions are misdirected. It won't be long before even more advanced research methods will uncover even more detailed information, such as actual license fees, the role of search engines in the licensing path, effectiveness of keywords and other metadata, and so on.

This will raise the volume of that alarm clock even more. And there's a reason for such a clock: you don't want to miss the plane.

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