Bridge To Innovation Or A Bridge Too Far

Posted on 7/28/2005 by Ethan g. Salwen | Printable Version | Comments (0)



July 30, 2005

    In the following article Ethan G. Salwen a San Francisco-based photojournalist, writer and national board member of the American Society of Picture Professional's, takes a hard look at Adobe Creative Suite 2 and Adobe Bridge. The article explores why Adobe's decision to become a seller of stock imagery delights some creative professionals, scares the hell out of others, and what the future may bring.

    This article was first published on, a new web magazine that focuses on the Mac community. Salwen is concerned with the challenges creative professionals face in creating and licensing images and can be reached at:

By: Ethan G. Salwen

Adobe Incorporated has made a bold move by jumping wholeheartedly into the business of selling stock photography. And they have done so in a completely innovative way that promises dramatic workflow conveniences for design professionals. From directly within any of the programs that comprise the recently released second version of Adobe's Creative Suite-Photoshop CS2, Illustrator CS2, InDesign CS2, and GoLive CS2-creative professionals can search, download watermark-free comps, and conveniently purchase any of 230,000 high-quality, royalty free stock photographs. Adobe Stock Photos includes enough well conceived bells and whistles to thrill Adobe product users now licensing royalty free stock imagery.

Adobe Stock Photos offers tremendous workflow advantages for image users. But with the advent of its stock initiative, Adobe has moved directly into competition with some of their most loyal customers-the professional stock photographers and the stock photography agencies who depend utterly on at least one of Adobe's software products. For those in the business of licensing images, whether shooters or distributors, Adobe's move demands that they take stock of their own selling practices to remain competitive. And by launching Adobe Stock Photos with only royalty free stock imagery, and not offering equally easy access to rights managed stock imagery, Adobe has also breathed new fire into the debate about the place of royalty free stock in the world of image licensing.

In short, there are creative pros who will be thrilled with the new convenience Adobe has created for them. But there are other creative pros who will see Adobe's move as a direct and inappropriate affront to their livelihoods. As with all new technological advances that usher in change and create new opportunities, it is too simplistic to simply support or condemn Adobe Stock Photos. What is needed is a clear understanding of exactly what Adobe Stock Photos is, how it will affect creative professionals-positively and negatively-and how this new development is likely to evolve over the coming years.

The File Browser Grows Up

In the first version of Adobe Creative Suite, which hit the market in October 2003, Adobe made impressive strides in seamlessly integrating their core creative programs. One of the most significant developments, though lost on many-especially those who saw no clear value in upgrading to Creative Suite-were the tremendous improvements Adobe made to the File Browser. Before Creative Suite-say, in Photoshop 7-the File Browser was primarily a more convenient tool for locating and opening graphic files, a much-appreciated improvement over the limited "File Open" command. The pre-Creative Suite File Browser certainly made a big difference for users by enabling them to see folders of thumbnails; rename, flag, and organize files; and change their locations without having to work from within the computer's operating system.

However, it was in Creative Suite that the File Browser took on new life. It became, in essence, a mini-application within the Creative Suite programs that greatly streamlined a number of workflow issues. In Photoshop CS for example, when the File Browser was coupled with the Camera Raw plug-in, it became the most convenient and powerful utility for processing Raw captures from digital cameras into Photoshop files. No need for third party conversion software programs, which were often expensive (the Camera Raw plug-in is free) and usually deficient. The File Browser in Photoshop CS also offered powerful batch renaming, batch processing, automatic creation of contact sheets and web galleries. Just as critical, it provided creative professionals with an opportunity to add and edit metadata, such as copyright information and keywords.

In Creative Suite 2 the File Browser has reached much fuller potential. Appropriately renamed Bridge, it is now an independent application that can be launched on its own, with no need to access it through one of the CS programs. It really is a bridge that links each of the programs in the Creative Suite-Photoshop CS2, InDesign CS2, Illustrator CS2, GoLive CS2 and Adobe Stock Photos. Responding to customer feedback, Adobe increased Bridge's metadata editing capabilities; Bridge users can change the size of thumbnails on the fly with a slider; Bridge can process Raw files while the user is editing other images in Photoshop CS2; and images can be imported to Creative Suite 2 applications simply by dragging thumbnails from within Bridge. However, what is truly revolutionary about Bridge is that it offers users direct access to searching, buying, and managing royalty free stock photography in their design projects.

Adobe Stock Photos 101

In essence, Adobe Stock Photos is a one-stop shopping experience that links Creative Suite 2 users, through Bridge, with 230,000 royalty free images from five image distributors: PhotoDisc, Digital Vision, Comstock Images, imageshop by zefaimages, and amana. Adobe Stock Photos is available in 27 countries, and is compatible with 15 languages, eight searchable languages, and four currencies.

What makes Adobe Stock Photos helpful is the thumbnails, watermark-free previews, and the hi-res image files are not stored on Adobe servers. When Bridge users browse images by subject or call up images through advanced keyword searches, they are actually connecting directly with the Adobe's image suppliers. Bridge then presents the information in one clear and consistent format. This streamlined functionality is very similar to Randomeye's Image Grabber.

The most obvious advantage of Adobe Stock Photos is that designers do not need to visit each of the five distributor's Web sites one at a time, but can search all five directly from within Bridge. But the convenience doesn't stop there. Another advantage of Adobe Stock Photos is that images can be purchased from multiple suppliers at one time, with one shopping cart. And all sales fall under Adobe Stock Photos's licensing agreement. This eliminates the buyer's need to maintain five different accounts. Further, by using the metadata attached to each image, Bridge actually keeps track of an impressive range of information. For example, if a designer tries to run a preflight check on a layout from InDesign, the program will alert the designer if any of the images are low-quality comps, saving time and money. Designers can buy the hi-res image but will need to go in and manually replace the comp themselves. This is not an automatic function.

"Adobe Stock Photos is a revolutionary step forward in searching, working with and purchasing images," explains Kevin Milden, executive producer of MEDIUM Design Group in Santa Barbara, California. "One of the most time consuming tasks for any designer at some point is looking through hundreds, if not thousands of images before finding just a few that will even work with what they are trying to create." Through the Bridge application Milden says, "Designers can sort images, resize thumbnails in real-time, save search results, open comps directly in Photoshop and work with the comps instantly. Adobe has streamlined the entire process, which increases the time designers have to be creative."

As with all of Adobe's product developments, "Providing creative opportunities is exactly what this new initiative is all about," says James Alexander, Director of Adobe Stock Photos at Adobe Systems. "We didn't rush into selling stock photos," Alexander explains. "We talked to thousands of creative professionals, held extensive focus groups, and determined clearly that one of our customers' greatest needs was increased efficiency in locating and working with stock imagery."

"Adobe has taken the stock experience to a new level with the integration of Adobe Stock Photos in Adobe Bridge," says Alexander. "Adobe Bridge is part file browser, part image manager and metadata editor, which extends the file browser within Photoshop CS2 across the entire Creative Suite 2. At its core is the 'Bridge Center,' which provides quick access to files recently used, collections which can launch a series of documents and applications you save, together with a host of other features such as color management and Version Cue CS2 status." For a great little movie demonstrating the benefits of Adobe Stock Photos, head to Adobe's Web site and search for "Adobe Stock Photos," or go to

"With Adobe Stock Photos," adds Milden, "designers will notice right away how much easier it is to access images than it is to have to go through multiple sites on the Web. It's simple to open images by dragging and dropping into any of the Creative Suite 2 applications. And the purchasing process and pricing is a straightforward breeze. Designers will truly smile when they realize what once took minutes now takes just a few seconds."

What About Rights Managed Images?

But not everyone is smiling about Adobe Stock Photos. There is a strong contingent of professional photographers who abhor the existence of royalty free stock in any form, saying that it undercuts their ability to license images at a profitable level. Many assignment photographers and stock photographers who license only rights managed images see the proliferation of royalty free images as the single greatest threat to their livelihoods. But as Adobe's Alexander points out, "Adobe didn't create the category of royalty free stock. Photographers did." And he's right about that.

Jim Pickerell, author of the highly regarded industry newsletter, Selling Stock, and a recognized industry expert says, "Anyone who thinks that royalty free stock isn't here to stay is living in a dream world." He points out that two-thirds of all images licensed by Getty Images-the largest seller of stock in the world-are royalty free images (although these images account for only one-third of the company's sales by revenue). And Pickerell believes the trend is only likely to grow with the continual improvements seen in the quality and scope of royalty free imagery.

There are many, Pickerell included, who don't fault Adobe for selling royalty free images. But they are extremely concerned that Adobe chose not to offer access to rights managed images at the same time-with the initial launch of Adobe Stock Photos. Betsy Reid, the executive director of Stock Artists Alliance, a nonprofit trade organization dedicated to promoting the interests of photographers licensing rights managed images, says, "Adobe Stock Photos is an extraordinary innovation that responds to what designers and art directors say they want in acquiring stock photography. We know they want their search and license process to be as easy and hassle-free as possible."

"But as a trade organization for rights managed stock photographers," Reid adds, "SAA was of course disappointed that Adobe Stock Photos launched an all-royalty free product. Without rights managed imagery, Adobe's customers miss the quality, freshness, depth, and breadth of selection that rights managed imagery delivers so well." What's more, Reid explains, "Without access to rights managed images, designers and art directors lose the ability to determine if competitors are using the same image, or the option to license an 'exclusive.'" By this Reid is pointing to the essential differences between licensing royalty free and rights managed images: the ability to track license history and purchase exclusive use to an image over a certain period of time in a certain market area.

Royalty Free Vs. Rights Managed

The tension between royalty free (RF) and rights managed (RM) imagery will seem like much ado about nothing for those who don't understand the exact difference between these two forms of licensable images. And if you're an image "buyer" in the dark about the distinction between the two, you're probably safely within the majority. It's confusing stuff. And the intense proliferation of royalty free imagery over the past few years, when many graphic designers have come of age professionally, has only added to the confusion.

Cathy D-P Sachs, the executive director of the American Society of Picture Professionals, a nonprofit association that supports both makers and users of images, sounds out a simple but critical point. "People in this industry speak casually about buying images," Sachs says, "But except in extremely rare instances, people do not actually buy images at all. They license the use of images for very specific purposes. Ownership of the image remains tightly with the creator of the image." Traditionally this has been the photographer, who retained the copyright to his or her work, and therefore all power over the work's usage. In some cases, ownership belongs to the company who commissioned the work, as is often the case with newspaper photographers. Sachs wants people who purchase images through Adobe Stock Photos to understand that they are not really buying the images. "They are not free to resell the images," she says, "And they must follow the licensing usage agreement they sign with Adobe."

Fundamentally, licensing RF and RM images is the same thing. It is simply that the usage governing RF images is much, much more lenient. The Stock Artists Alliance authored a white paper entitled "Understanding Stock Licensing Models" which clearly distinguishes the differences between royalty free and rights managed stock. The paper is available on SAA's Web site, and anyone buying (I mean, licensing!) and using stock images would do well to read it.

"The critical distinction between RF and RM licensing models," explains Reid, "is that the rights managed model of licensing is one of license by use." In other words, says Reid, "Exactly how the image is used determines how much a licensee pays." This can be very good news for designers since it will cost a heck of a lot less to license Photo X to run in black and white, half-page, in a text book with a print run of 5,000 than it will to license Photo X to run in color on the front cover of a consumer magazine with a print run of 500,000. A heck of a lot less.

In the rights managed model of licensing the opportunity to purchase exclusivity also comes into play. The usage of RM images is closely tracked. This allows people purchasing rights to an image to gain a competitive advantage by ensuring that they have exclusive rights to the image over a certain time period or geographical area, or both. Again, it would cost a heck of a lot less to purchase the exclusive rights to Photo X for usage in one state over a month-long period than it would be to purchase the exclusive rights to Photo X worldwide over a year-long period. A heck of a lot less.

"In contrast," says Reid, "the royalty free model of licensing is one of license based on units." By this, she means that a purchaser pays a standardized license fee for a unit, whether that unit is a single image (usually priced by file size), a collection of images (as with a CD of royalty free images), or through a subscription service (which typically allows the purchaser to access a collection over a period of time). But again, Reid reiterates that licensing royalty free images is still a form of licensing, not outright buying.

Reid also clarifies: "Royalty free is marketed as a "bargain" product, yet designers may actually pay MORE for an RF license in some cases. Consider a license for a small print run in a local market which requires a large file size - one might pay a lot more for an RF license based on the file size, than an RM license based on the actual use."

Partial Access to Rights Managed Images

It's easy to see that for creative professionals needing to license images-the customers Adobe is attempting to serve through Adobe Stock Photos-RF stock is neither better nor worse than RM stock. Both have a place, both have advantages and disadvantages, and designers need access to both. A relatively inexpensive RF image is perfectly suited for the background in a brochure that will have a limited distribution. But for the cover of a national magazine a more expensive RM will be the order of the day, if exclusivity will be paramount.

In response to the criticism Adobe has received for launching Adobe Stock Photos with only royalty free content, Adobe's Alexander makes one thing perfectly clear about Adobe's agenda. "We are in the business of creating opportunities for creative pros," he says, "And that includes both designers and photographers. For both designers and photographers we are committed to continually improving our software. For designers, we are filling an important need by offering easier access to stock imagery."

In fact, Adobe has proven that they are not solely interested in promoting their royalty free imagery. At the same time they launched Adobe Stock Photos, they also launched a directory of rights managed photography. Granted, the directory is limited to the rights managed collections of their royalty free partners-business is business, after all-but it does give design professionals access to hundreds of thousands of rights managed images. And just as important, it illustrates Adobe's willingness to support the RM model of image licensing. Design professionals using the directory will need to complete their transactions directly with the suppliers, and Adobe won't be taking a piece of that action.

The Photographers Directory

Another way that Adobe has responded to photographers' concerns about launching Adobe Stock Photos has been to create the Adobe Photographers Directory ( Understanding that designers and art directors often need original artwork produced exclusively for their use, Adobe has created a searchable database of professional photographers, which will display photographers' profiles and samples of their work.

"We are very excited about the opportunities the Photographers Directory will create for photographers," explains Alexander. He points out that such qualified databases, like the American Society of Media Photographer's Find-a-Photographer search engine create real revenue opportunities for photographers. "Adobe is committed to balancing the needs of all our customers," Alexander says, "And Adobe is thrilled to be able to support photographers in this way."

Indeed, the photographers able to participate in Adobe's Photographers Directory are receiving extremely promising promotion at no cost. To ensure that the Photographers Directory is truly valuable for the design community, the directory is not open to all photographers. The database has been initially populated by general members of the American Society of Media Photographers, who have a proven publication track record. This means that, at least at first, Adobe's directory will pretty much be a mirror version of ASMP's Find-a-Photographer service. But Adobe will soon be opening up the Directory to photographers from other professional associations, such as Advertising Photographers of America, Stock Artists Alliance, and The American Society of Picture Professionals.

This raises concern among successful photographers who don't belong to any professional associations. They point out that while they will not be included in the Adobe Photographers Directory, many sub par photographers who are members of certain associations will be. Adobe is aware of this concern and is still working on the best way to maintain the value of the directory without becoming arbitrators of who should and should not be represented.

The Rights Managed Automation Challenge

Given Adobe's willingness to help their customers secure rights managed images-as witnessed by their creation of the rights managed directory-one obvious question emerges. Why didn't Adobe simply make RM photographs available directly from within Bridge as part of Adobe Stock Photos? Every major supplier of rights managed stock-and even a large number of individual photographers-offer automated shopping cart functionality that allows customers to purchase RM stock online 24/7. "The problem," says Alexander, "is that 70 to 80 percent of all rights managed automated online purchases fail." By fail Alexander means that the transaction was too complicated to be completed automatically (or that the purchaser wanted to negotiate a better deal) and the customer needed to call one of the supplier's customer service reps to complete the transaction.

The very thing that makes rights managed stock attractive to designers-the ability to license a more unique image for a specific use, and the ability to purchase exclusivity-makes it almost impossible to completely automate sales. "The fact is," says Alexander, "Adobe is committed to offering rights managed photography through Adobe Stock Photos. But we are not going to be able to do that until we can reach a 95 percent success rate in automated sales."

That, says Jim Pickerell, will probably be impossible. "Adobe Stock Photos has tremendous potential," explains Pickerell. "But Adobe is committed to a fully automated business model, and that just isn't possible when it comes to licensing rights managed photography." For anyone who has ever gone through the process of licensing a rights managed image, Pickerell's observation will make perfect sense. Not only are there literally thousands of usage options-when image size, publication type, distribution, and desired exclusivity come in to play-but there are a number of other factors involved in licensing rights managed images. "For example," Pickerell explains, "when it comes to editorial use clients often need a lot more information than the simple caption available through automated sales."

"Adobe has got to come to grips with how they are going to deal with this situation," says Pickerell. "If they don't and if they try to do it all fully automated, it's just not going to work." That might be the case. But before Adobe abandons their hopes at achieving complete automation of licensing rights managed images (or simply abandons their intention of expanding Adobe Stock Photos to include RM photography) they are placing a lot of their hopes on an initiative spearheaded by a photographer named Jeff Sedlik.

The PLUS Antidote

Jeff Sedlik, a photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City, is a pragmatist. "Royalty free stock is here to stay," Sedlik reasons. "While I strongly oppose photographer participation in the RF market, the fact is that you can't convince clients that they don't need what they need. You might as well shout at a hurricane to get out of your way."

But Sedlik is also solution-oriented. "If you can't fight demand for royalty free, and if the demand for RF is increasing exponentially, then what solutions are left? Not many. But there is at least one," he posits. "We can decrease clients' resistance to licensing rights managed stock by making rights managed transactions simpler, more transparent, and less prone to liability. If we can give clients less reason to resist RM purchases, then demand for RM will rise."

Enter the PLUS Coalition ( of which Sedlik is the president and CEO. PLUS, which stands for Picture Licensing Universal System, is an international non-profit trade association with a tightly focused mission: "To simplify and facilitate the licensing of images." "As we have seen," says Sedlik, "when it comes to licensing rights managed images, this is a big challenge,"

PLUS's on-line white paper explains: "The PLUS initiative is based upon the creation, implementation and general industry adoption of three key elements: a GLOSSARY of terms that define picture uses, a standardized, hierarchical MATRIX and a LICENSE DATA FORMAT providing a machine readable, embeddable standardized structure for describing a license.

"The PLUS Matrix can be best understood as a pyramid of base uses, from the most general (advertising, editorial, etc.) to the most specific (shelf-talkers, blow-ins, magazine back cover, etc.). Each of these uses, general and specific, will be assigned an alphanumeric Use Identifier (UID), providing an immediate and precise understanding of the scope of an image usage license negotiated between licensor and customer. The UID would also allow fully automated tracking of usage licenses in a database system, as well as the tracking of image rights via metadata embedded in the electronic form of the images themselves."

This fully automated tracking is exactly what Adobe Stock Photos needs to be able to offer rights managed stock alongside royalty free stock. This is one reason that Adobe has, as a PLUS Coalition Visionary Sustaining Member, provided the initiative with considerable financial and logistical support. And they are in good company. Sedlik explains that if PLUS is to be successful it must be developed by and supported by photographers, illustrators, stock picture agencies, artist representatives, advertising agencies, advertisers, graphic design firms, publishers, and other associated industries. A quick glance at the trade organizations that have joined PLUS's Advisory Council-far too many to list here-proves that the initiative is succeeding at teaming these diverse forces into a coherent body. "PLUS will benefit photographers, but is not a photographers' initiative," Sedlik says. "All PLUS components are created by cooperative effort between licensors and licensees." (PLUS welcomes all people knowledgeable and experienced in image licensing to participate in the creation of its standards.) The Version 1.0 of PLUS will be published and online in October 2005.

Indeed, the PLUS Coalition's greatest asset is that it clearly recognizes that everyone involved in image licensing will benefit from licensing standardization, and that it's a waste of time to demonize one side or another. "Adobe's entering the stock photography marketplace is a natural progression," explains Sedlik. "They are omnipresent in the creative industries, and cannot be expected to ignore the potential of their installed user base. Essentially they have a captive audience of image consumers, and they have created a value added service to meet the needs of those consumers. Adobe is on the hot seat with photographers over its decision to feature royalty free first, rather than rights managed, but the reality is that the lack of RM licensing standards makes RM virtually impossible for Adobe in the short term."

The Future of Adobe Stock Photos

In the short term Adobe Stock Photos will continue to add more royalty free images to their 230,000-image collection. This, of course, is critical to maintaining the value of their service for the design community. Adobe is also seeking to expand their number of RF suppliers. How Adobe Stock Photos will grow over the long-term is less clear. As Alexander says, Adobe would very much like to offer rights managed stock through their service. But like Pickerell, he admits that the challenges are formidable. While the work of the PLUS Coalition certainly holds promise, clear solutions to all the obstacles keeping Adobe from fully automating RM licensing are not readily apparent.

What is clear is that as long as Adobe stays committed to adding rights managed functionality to Adobe Stock Photos the industry as a whole will benefit. Adobe has amazing resources and a proven track record of breaking new technological ground. If they are able to solve their rights managed automation dilemma, they will have done a great deal to support the same photographers who are currently frustrated by the royalty free-only aspect of Adobe Stock Photos.

Innovative and Concerned

By entering the stock photography business in such an innovative manner through Adobe Stock Photos, Adobe has created amazing opportunities for a large percentage of their customers. They have also stepped into a huge can of worms. They have opened themselves up to criticism that they have used their position in the market to compete directly against the photographers they are committed to supporting. And there's no doubt that like any good business Adobe is interested in creating new sources of revenue. But regardless of how one feels about Adobe Stock Photos and Adobe's motivations, it would be unfair to accuse Adobe of acting rashly and not trying to balance the needs of all their customers. With their creation of the Photographers Directory, with their support of the PLUS Coalition, and with their commitment to making rights managed images available through Adobe Stock Photos, Adobe has proved that they understand their success remains linked to the success of all the creative pros who depend on their products.

Copyright © 2005 Ethan g. Salwen. 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 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


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