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Photo Licensing for All: Microstock Photo Services

Have a camera? Consider yourself a decent photographer? … Want to earn a buck from your efforts; see your pictures on a web page or in print?  Increasingly all that and more are possible thanks to a concept called Micro-Stock Photo Agencies which are gaining popularity almost as fast as their archives of footage are gaining new pictures. 

photoThe premise is simple: anyone with a camera can take a picture and upload it onto some Micro-stock Agency’s site.  There, the images will be displayed for any members to see, and if they like, license for a nominal fee.  If I need a graphic for Metue, for example, and don’t have the time to create it myself, I can go to a site like iStockPhoto.  There, if something catches my eye, for a few dollars I can license the picture (subject to some limitations) for use on my site alongside my content.  In theory, an entire website could be populated for licensed footage for sums that might only break my piggy bank, but not my real budget.

The idea of this open-access, micro-stock agency is relatively new but their older sibling, traditional Stock Photo Agencies, are not new at all.  Big agencies have for years managed the portfolios of untold amateur and professional photographers.  In fact, Stock Agencies   are generally the most consistent revenue stream for many professional photographers. They act as cataloger, distributor and licensing agent for orphaned photos (e.g. images not shot for a specific assignment). 

If a press photographer is on assignment in Africa, for example,  and she happens to shoot three rolls of film (in the days of film) or a few hundred shots on a memory card, of animals unrelated to the news story she was there covering, the stock agency will help her make money from them.  Her pictures get archived, and then, when a corporate buyer comes looking for a catalog image, something to put in an annual report, a print advertisement, or grace a web page, if her image is what the buyer wants, the Stock agency delivers and shares the fee with the photographer.

Micro-stock agencies do the same thing but they start with the premise of small fees and use a different service model.  Generally, the differences between stock and micro-stock sum up as access and cost. Typically, a would-be photographer doesn’t have to submit a portfolio and regular footage to insure acceptance by the agency in micro-stock.  They also don’t need to guarantee exclusivity to the agency.  A photographer can submit the same pictures to five different micro-stock agencies to try maximize the exposure they get.  (Some micro-stock agencies are still restrictive, in both choosing photographers and what they can do, but that’s not the case, on average.  Other sites provide financial incentives in the form of greater revenue-sharing for exclusivity rights.)

With micro-stock, on the buy-side there is also greater access.  Anyone can usually buy – there’s often no sales staff to deal with, nor a contract to negotiate.  It’s usually a registration, a few mouse clicks and acceptance of predetermined terms.  It’s also usually a one time fee. The license, in other words, doesn’t need renewal and repayment for continued use under the same terms.

Most images available through a micro-stock agency are licensed for limited non-exclusive use. That means, they can be used only for certain things (no placing a micro-stock photo on a Coffee Mug to sell in your mail order catalog), and you won’t be alone in the use unless you pay a different fee for exclusivity.  At the standard rate, with no special add-ons, the best pictures from a micro-stock agency could find homes on 1,000 different websites (including your competitors).   It’s because of those terms, the cost of the license is inexpensive – maybe $10 or less depending on which agency and the size of the image – and it’s that lack of expense and the availability that makes micro-stock interesting: it represents a significant opportunity as a means of monetizing user-generated content, and it potentially changes the dynamic of the image-sales industry by bringing in smaller buyers who wouldn’t normally fit the typical customer profile.

With such high promise, the landscape for micro-stock agencies is wide. A host of companies offer the service.  Some are small startups struggling to build the kind of critical mass (in both images and buyers) necessary to be successful.  One is Lucky Oliver, a small shop that sells images and vector graphics (computer illustrations) for as little as $1 (The size of the image influences price.)   Shutterstock is another, much larger example.  They are home to about 2m royalty-free photos and are adding 20k-30k photo’s a week.   

Other micro-stock agencies are part of larger image-service businesses.  iStockPhoto, and Stock Expert, are both examples which have the financial support and expertise (back-office, etc) of a larger traditional agency.  iStockphoto, which is probably the industry leader right now, was founded in 2000 and is now owned by publicly held Getty Images, one of the premier full service stock photo agencies (which has maintained a busy M&A growth strategy).  Stock Expert is owned by Jupiter Images.

Recently, Bill Gates owned stock agency Corbis announced it too was joining the micro-stock party with the launch of its own micro-stock agency services.   Rather than buy from the marketplace, the Corbis staff decided they could more easily create their own. Given there are few entry barriers to prevent new startups, and photographers often submit to multiple sites, they felt (according to statements expressed in an article about the Corbis effort on CNET’s site) that there was no competitive advantage to buying an established site.   That’s probably shrewd, particularly given Corbis, more than  the other’s will likely use its micro-stock site as a tool to filter and find photographers to contribute to it’s full service stock agency.  (Gary Shenk, Corbis’ president has publicly said they don’t expect micro-stock to be a major focus of theirs for the next few years). 

Comments on the projected influence of micro-stock are measured.  Some think micro-stock services, by lowering price points and increasing image library resources, are industry changing breakthroughs.  Other’s feel they are over-rated; home to transactions too small in scale to have more than passing effect on revenues.   Hovering closer to the middle of the spectrum are some who think micro-stock represents more of a new market, a market that’s complimentary, and not terribly threatening to traditional stock agencies.  That logic, I suspect is the most accurate. 

Micro-stock agencies provide a means of capitalizing on user-generated content. They give audience to a pool of talent that otherwise might not have been able to get through the editorial filters at a full-service agency; amateur photographers with good-eyes and day jobs that produce real income.  More importantly, micro-stock agencies serve buyers who are most likely to be from a category not typically served; people like a web publisher looking for an image to re-purpose as a blog-header, or a corporate manager looking for an image to improve a power point presentation.  These are people who aren’t likely to have much need or interest in licensing higher cost images from an agency.  Micro-stock, addresses their needs and creates a new market opportunity.

Among the traditional clients of established full service agencies – the Commercial buyers, the large advertisers, the big corporate buyers -there will invariably be some who switch to use a micro-stock product for the cost benefits, but more often large buyers will still require specialty rights and pay for them.   Accordingly, micro-stock services are less likely to cannibalize traditional image-licensing businesses.  

Just as blogging tools can make anyone a published writer, micro-stock agencies can make anyone a published photographer.  Micro-stock agencies expand the scale and reach – to new customers and new artists.  That’s a valuable service for all involved.

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