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Monday, June 28, 2010

Getty and Flickr: Prophesies Coming True?

People have been emailing me copiously, asking for a statement in response to the new relationship between Getty and Flickr, where Flickr members and visitors can work with each other through a new program with Getty Images called “Request to License”. The details of this program are listed here. From that page:

When a prospective licensee sees an image marked for license, they can click on the link and be put in touch with a representative from Getty Images who will help handle details like permissions, releases and pricing. Once reviewed, the Getty Images editors will send you a FlickrMail to request to license your work, either for commercial or editorial usage. The decision to license is always yours.

Why are people asking me about this?

For years, I've been proposing that precisely this model be implemented. Most of my blog entries in 2007 and 2008 articulated this very model. The first was on Feb 13, 2007, in an article titled, "The future of photo sharing sites and agencies". There, I predicted the inevitable convergence between companies like Getty and Flickr:

I believe it will invariably happen that major photo agencies like Getty and Corbis can (and should) move into the consumer market. Consider what would happen if major stock agencies expanded their businesses by opening the flood gates and letting everyone in. By removing the barriers that require photographers to "submit images," and having a separate portion of their sites be entirely open, much like other photo-sharing sites are, they would give more options to buyers, and provide more opportunities (and greater incentive) for photographers to join at all levels. Getty owns iStockPhoto.com, which is a microstock agency that sells images for much less, but this is not a consumer-based, social networking style photo sharing site like flickr is.

The key here is in italics: microstock agencies are not social networking sites, they are therefore limited by both buyers are sellers than the social-networking sites. My premise for this logic is based on my years of research showing that 80% or more of licensed images is peer-to-peer, directly between buyers and photographers, not among agencies. You can read this research in the article, "The Size of the Photo Licensing Market"). The summary of that research is this basic truism: Most buyers find images on non-stock agency websites.

On Feb 18, 2007, I wrote how the photo-sharing and social-networking sites can capitalize on this opportunity in an article titled, "Two-Phased Approach to photo-sharing/licensing model". I said:

Phase One of this business will be where a photo-sharing site merely allows visitors to license images directly from the site. Phase Two will involve the distribution of the same photo assets to other sites, much the same way online ad sales are hosted (or "published") on other websites. ... For the sake of discussion, I'm going to assume that the approach ultimately adopted is the one I've suggested in the past: make it pure and simple by giving the user a toggle for setting whether his photos are (or aren't) permitted to be "sold".

And that's exactly what Getty and Flickr are doing now. Over four years later.

You may note that I said there was a two-phased approach. That second model will eventually become part of more photo-licensing business models. (In fact, it already exists, but among companies too small to get anyone's attention--partly because the technology and business models they've adopted do not properly understand and implement the true nature of photo licensing, copyright issues, and potential target markets. This is an aside for the moment; it may come up again when larger players eventually begin to consider the opportunities.)

Speaking of predictions, I remain steadfast in my opinion of the inevitability of what happens next:

In July, 2007, my blog post titled, "The Solution to Getty's Woes" explained how Getty can get out of its financial troubles by simply buying Flickr directly from Yahoo and using it as the main stock licensing engine. The article got into exceedingly detailed analysis of Getty's financial model (and troubles) combined with the explosion of available imagery on sites like Flickr that make this solution not only obvious, but inevitable.

On a directly related note, I called into question the life expectancy of the Creative Commons in this article (2008), where I again proposed that Flickr allow users the option of choosing between allowing their images available for free via CC, or to get income from their images. I said,

...it begs the question about whether enough people would choose the option to "make my images free"(CC) if it were next to the checkbox that says, "pay me a quarter if someone's dumb enough to buy it."

And then there's the buyer. If they were given the choice between "free images, with disclaimers and risks" and modestly priced images without such risks, it wouldn't be very likely that the "free" versions would be chosen very often.

The concept of CC would never survive under these two conditions.

Without getting too far afield, I have no qualms with the CC, per se. It's more about how simplistically it's been designed and deployed. It's just not sustainable in the real world business market. The problem is not the "license terms" and the structure of the legal contracts--those are all just fine. It's the fact that the system can be gamed so easily by both buyers and sellers, that it's too unreliable to be sustainable beyond a small handful of casual users (by comparison to the larger market of stock imagery). The true protections for both buyers and sellers is to leverage the copyright registration mechanism. That is, creative commons images that are also registered with the copyright office lowers the risk both both buyers and sellers, as explained in that article. Since no one is building copyright registration into their online business models, and the CC itself has a fundamental objection to the concept of copyright in the first place, the CC will be relegated to an historical footnote , bringing strength back to the for-fee licensing model. And which brings us back to why I'd always argued that Flickr should have enabled image licensing.

So, why is this all good for the photo licensing industry? I articulate this answer in the blog entry I wrote on March 15, 2007 in the article titled, "Photo-sharing-licensing sites leveling the playing field."

As more companies engage in the business of licensing images, photographers with credibility will gravitate to the sites that offer a better return on their money... In a way, this is how photo agencies started in the very beginning, only better: because photographers don't have to be "accepted," the playing field is much more level, and the market forces can be more free to let the money flow to those who really do merit the higher earnings (rather than at the whim of photo editors). The buyer, it turns out, is the best photo editor, and it will be pretty clear in short order which sites are hosting good, honest content.

I summarize with another excerpt from that article:

...the most basic, fundamental truism about photography remains: there are more people who have it as a hobby than as a profession, and the barrier to entry is low... the honeymoon period for Getty will end once photo-sharing sites become new outlets for photographers where the open market can decide their rates."

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