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Stock Imagery Takes a Turn

Micropayment sites surge, while RM images look to come back.

As the stock-image industry evolves, some trends are playing out as forecasted within these pages just a year ago. Consolidation through acquisitions, the strength of royalty-free (RF) licensing models, and the increasing popularity of subscription-based services all continue to have an impact upon the marketplace.

Just when you think you have the stock-image market all figured out, however, it twists and turns so as to keep you on your image-sourcing toes. This year, a few additional and important trends have been developing-trends that could very well affect the types of stock images you buy, and how you go about doing so. These new trends include:

* Micropayment sites-an even less-expensive version of RF and subscription models;

* New licensing avenues for rights-managed (RM) stock, and the possible comeback of this image model; and

* Modifications to technology in the form of better, more useful search engines throughout the stock-image marketplace.

Micropayment sites: for the people, by the people

One of the most interesting and, possibly, important trends stems from the fact that stock photography is no longer the exclusive purview of professional photographers and, in some cases, well-known photo agencies. With the availability of affordable digital cameras and a multitude of electronic outlets, everyday consumers are also posting and selling their digital images online either from personal websites or more formal venues-called micropayment sites-some of which are owned by larger stock agencies.

"Power in the marketplace is shifting away from control-of-content to control-of-distribution," explains Robert Gubas, VP of marketing at Getty Images. "Today, with the advent of accessible, moderately priced digital cameras, everyone is a photographer." Additionally, says Gubas, "When you also consider the availability of simple and reasonably effective search technology and the ability to market with greater precision, affordability, and measurability (via paid search), you have a situation where everyone can become a distributor and reach potential customers."

This "community-generated content"-which has already garnered its own industry acronym, CGC-includes stock photos, illustrations, Flash movies, and other content that’s created by amateurs, semi-professionals, and sometimes professionals themselves.

The main motivation for these content creators to participate in stock photography, says James Alexander, director of Adobe Stock Photos, is that "it presents a new way to have their work be seen and appreciated." Importantly, he adds, "Making a living from CGC is not the priority." No surprise there since images on micropayment sites like Fotolia, Jupiter Images’ Stockxpert, Shutterstock, and Getty Images’ iStockPhoto sell for as little as $1 per image, with an average royalty rate for its creator of 20% to 50%.

As you might guess, micropayment sites have elicited negative responses from some in the stock-image industry, on both the professional photographer and agency sides. But Gary Shenk, senior vice president of images at Corbis, and others see this new source of content as a boon to the industry. "It’s bringing a lot of new customers into the marketplace," says Shenk. Customers like "small companies, agencies, and creatives that would never consider paying $100 for a photo from Corbis or Getty Images."

Gubas of Getty Images, agrees: "Micropayment models are expanding the market by reaching out to a completely new set of customers. Ultimately, they’re contributing to an increasingly visual and much more exciting social media atmosphere."

If sustainable, says Adobe’s Alexander, "this model will have far-reaching consequences for professional photographers, illustrators, videographers, and other artists who create stock content for a living." In the end, he says, "We think that more stock will be used for all the new media outlets including mobile, Web, and Flash video which may sustain industry revenues but on much higher volumes of sales. It’s impossible to predict, but it’s exciting to see how technology is creating access to imagery for people and organizations that otherwise may not have been able to afford it."

Another benefit to the plethora of hobbyist and advancedamateur photographers posting their images online is that these venues provide a new way for agencies to source photography. "This is a very, very exciting trend," reports Corbis’s Shenk. "There are many hobbyist photographers and there’s an incredible amount of innovation on these sites. No longer are the potential sources of images limited to a finite photographer base. Corbis is always looking for new talent and we regularly look at those sites [micropayment and free sites like Flickr], and contact people who we think have potential."

On the downside, however, "The quality of the content can be inconsistent and there may be potential risks with clearances," says Alexander. Quality control and legal requirements can vary from site to site; it’s important that potential customers be aware of what safety checks are in place, particularly when it comes to model releases.

As Ross Sutherland, a former advertising agency creative and chief creative officer at Corbis, points out, "People are uploading all sorts" of images to those sites and these sorts of "problems have not manifested themselves yet." Problems like "Uncle Harry" seeing an unflattering image of himself online. "Just give us pictures of things that we can’t be sued over," says Sutherland, "like egg beaters."

Additionally, Sutherland believes that "the nature of subjects will ultimately determine the price" and that certain shots-like a photo of a lemon or a patch of grass-will soon become commoditized and be relegated to micropayment sites. "Now that micropayment sites have invited everybody with a cell phone or digital camera to be a photographer, soon they’re going to break the code that little blocks of grass sell really, really well. I really hope they carve out a whole new market for themselves; you should be able to buy [those types of images] for a buck."

A rights-managed comeback?

While Sutherland believes that RF (royalty free) is still "everyone’s darling" and we’re seeing more and more subscription-based RF alternatives, rights managed still plays an important role in the stock industry. Just as "there are always people who are going to buy Prada handbags, and there are always people who are going to buy Canal Street (NYC) duplicates, a lot of clients demand exclusive rights."

Rights managed, of course, provides a safety factor for customers who want to be sure that the image(s) they choose aren’t used by others-especially their clients’ competition. Licensing, by necessity, is much more complex than those of RF or micropayment models, and rights managed images are generally more expensive. Nevertheless, the market is there and there has been a slight surge in companies catering to this audience.

Take Digital Light Source (www.digitallightsource.com), for example, a new totally rights-managed site-the site offers no RF images. Photographer Jacob Hutchings, founder and general manager of the company, believes that rights managed is making a comeback. He sees a need for researchers to access fresh imagery, which he is providing from photographers based in the US and Europe. Hutchings believes that an agency like his can meet the needs of clients who want the ease of the Internet with the safety guaranteed by rights-managed licensing; he also feels that a smaller company can provide more personalized service than the larger RM companies.

As indicated earlier, the complexity of rights-managed licensing has nearly always been a thorn in the side of customers as well as agencies. Some companies are striving to address this issue. Getty Images, for instance, has recently launched a new licensing model called "rights-ready." This model combines the ease of licensing of RF with some of the benefits of rights managed. For example, a rights-ready image can be purchased for a flat rate online and can be used by the end client for 10 years. While licensing a rights-ready image doesn’t require territory or industry information, customers do have to specify a category or categories in which the image(s) will be used. Although rights-ready pricing is closer to rights-managed single-use license pricing, according to Getty Images’ Gubas, "the added value is delivered in terms of usage and duration."

The most promising solution to rights-managed image licensing, however, might be the PLUS Coalition’s move toward providing universal codification of licensing and rights. Jeff Sedlik, president and CEO of the PLUS Coalition (www.useplus.com), says that the nonprofit organization’s mission is to "simplify and facilitate image licensing" for stock licensing as well as assignment work. He makes it clear that this is not solely a stock initiative, but something that would apply to a broad variety of transactions, including photography and illustration.

"We’re seeing agencies that previously were RF now adding rights-managed because it’s more profitable, it serves the customer, and rights managed [images] tend to be of better quality," says Sedlik. All the big agencies, along with smaller agencies and trade organizations worldwide, are part of the effort to "make rights managed easier, more transparent, and universal." By doing so, says Sedlik, "it would become easier for clients to license an image and the liability involved would be reduced."

Not only would the licensing process be simplified, but licensing information would be embedded in the image. As a result, "Anyone who gets their hands on that file will know where it came from and when, what size it could be reproduced at, who to contact for information-the information that’s critical for the customer," explains Sedlik.

This is especially important for any agency or company, for example, that has thousands of images on a server. "You have to track those images," says Sedlik, "and it’s difficult to retain accurate accounting of licensing for images."

Additionally, the ID codes will be especially useful for global commerce. Sedlik uses an example of an agency in Rome, licensing from an agency in Spain for a client in New York: "Everybody needs to know what those licensing rights are," says Sedlik. "Each of those parties can look up the definition in their own language; it’s a common language for licensing that transcends language itself."

From there, the images "pass through the hands of prepress people and when they do pass through those systems, the license is going to pass through the system so anybody working on it will have access to the information," says Sedlik. This lessens the possibility of accidental misuse or placing it in the wrong client file, which is especially important, he explains, since file names are often changed during various stages of the process.

Not only would this system protect the rights of the licensees, but also the licensors. "PLUS has ensured that the interests of both the licensors and licensees will remain at the forefront, and anything we do will be designed to benefit both," reports Sedlik.

Tech developments and more

Meanwhile, the stock-image market has been tweaking various technologies to help better accommodate user needs.

Launched in July, Jupitermedia’s new search engine provides an enormous amount of control over the types of images retrieved with keywording. Not only is it possible to search images for people (and more specifically, by gender, age, ethnicity, and whether or not they are looking toward or away from the camera), but customers can now also search by the type of emotion expressed by the subject. Other features allow for searches to narrow image results based on lack of nudity, availability on CDs, and large file sizes (e.g., 50 MB or larger). The interface also makes it easy to move quickly between rights-managed and RF images.

Digital Light Source’s Hutchings indicates that he had been waiting for the right technology provider to launch his site, which he founded with 20/20 software, the company that built the website and database tools. One thing the site uses is an advanced lightbox manager, which gives the user access to an unlimited number of lightboxes and the ability to store an unlimited number of images a long as necessary. The lightbox can be e-mailed with notes so "they can build a concept with the images on the website," says Hutchings, "and present the concept with notes to whoever makes the decision without buying the images."

Anything that makes the life of researchers, designers, and other stock-photo users easier will certainly draw attention. But, in the end, the bottom line is whether the collection of images meets the client’s needs in terms of concept and quality.

Theano Nikitas is a freelance writer based in Ellicott City, MD.

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