Broken Promises and Stock Photography

Posted on 5/10/2012 by Paul Melcher | Printable Version | Comments (1)

The stock photography industry has to face the challenge of becoming relevant in an economy that has no patience for inadequate business models.

Today the vast majority of photographs are used without any contact with the traditional photo industry, which has completely lost control of production and distribution. But the industry continues stubbornly to apply old rules to this new landscape. It does not see, or purposely wants to ignore, that their model does not fit current needs and thus is chasing customers away.

It still hopes to enforce the antiquated rights-managed model on a space that obviously is not adapted to negotiate every usage, every fee, every image and where everyone is a publisher. It has failed to understand that in a world of Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Pinterest and Facebook, the client universe has changed from a few publishers to almost everyone in the world.

Agencies, Photographers Once Ruled

There was a time when the only two places one could find images were a photo agency and through a photographer. Back then photo agencies and independent photographers controlled production, as they decided what to shoot as well as where and how. This is no longer the case, and hasn’t been, actually, for a long time.

Take Flickr, for example. It has, and for a long time, offered a new channel of distribution to anyone looking for images, whether free or paying. Sure, Getty Images has tried to put the lid on that massive leak but with little success. The majority of images on Flickr are used without ever passing through a Getty representative. Why? Because they use Creative Commons, a licensing tool that exists outside of the photo industry, invented and used simply because existing ones were inadequate.

Spend some time on Facebook and ask yourself if any of the images you see have been licensed (or even if permission was sought). A study by PACA showed that 8 out of 10 images on the web are stolen (that is, used without permission).

Production? It has also been a long time since pro photographers and photo agencies had any control. They have massively been overtaken by the decisions of the masses, who now dictate to the photo industry the type of images that are successful.

Industry Reaction Repeated Mistakes

The traditional photo industry has attempted to react in numerous ways, first by accepting this new source of production in their traditional distribution channel: microstock. Most stock photo agencies have lowered their bar of entry and are accepting submissions by non-professional photographers, forever changing the production landscape.

In order to compete with the widening distribution channel, they also have increased dramatically their offering. While a traditional photo agency used to keep a few tens of thousands of photographs maximum, they now are in the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. And that’s still a speck of sand in the overall universe of available images.

They have also, repeating the mistakes of peers (RIAA), tried to engage image thieves in hopeless lawsuits. While some have anecdotal success here and there, the vast majority, here again, simply do not have the manpower and resources to fight back. It is a self-defeating process, as it will never be an effective solution against sharing. Piracy, you see, is not about stealing but accessibility. People do not steal images because they are evil; they steal because there are no practical alternatives if they want to use an image they like.

‘Lawsuits or Despair’

We have switched from the “one to many” (one magazine, millions of readers) model to many to many (millions of users sharing with millions of users). Everyone is a publisher. Royalty Free might seem a little better adapted, but most images end up being used hundreds, if not thousands of times without the owner ever knowing it. The stock industry is horribly ill-adapted to the current market. And, instead of adapting, it is fighting it. Sounds very much like the dinosaur scenario to me.

Take, for example, the absurdity of trying to sue over every copyright infringement. It borders on complete insanity. If people steal your images it is because they like them. For some reason, they either can’t pay for them (too expensive) or cannot find who to pay (poor accessibility). Rather than find a way to accommodate this huge opportunity with a creative licensing solution, the industry reacts with lawsuits or despair.

If the photo industry wants to survive, it has to quickly understand that it is not the amateurs who are taking their bread and butter but their own infantile stubbornness.

Copyright © 2012 Paul Melcher. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-251-0720, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Paul Melcher has been named one of the "50 most influential individuals in American photography" by American Photo. He is currently vice president of business development at Stipple. See here and here foir more about Stipple. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog.


  • Ron Levy Posted Sep 10, 2014
    Your generalization about the "photo industry" being "infantile" and stubborn ignores all the "creative licensing solutions" that have been proposed over the last 10-15 years. Stubborn is just a negative word for concepts like persistent, dedicated, adapting to survive, or whatever.

    The photo industry obviously does not sue over every infringement. It does not simply "react with lawsuits or despair".

    Your frustrations are understandable. What isn't forgiveable is your denial of legitimate, constructive, positive efforts on behalf of the industry to survive.

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