Stock Licensing Industry - 2006

Posted on 4/10/2006 by Jeffrey Burke | Printable Version | Comments (0)



April 10, 2006

    At the recent PACA meeting in Chicago, Jeff Burke, outgoing President of PACA, and Sr. Vice President of Product Strategy for Jupiterimages Corp. gave a very balanced and thought provoking presentation on "Current Trends in the Photo Industry, Where is the Stock Industry Headed?"

    Burke, who entered this industry in 1994 when he founded PictureArts with his wife, Lorraine Triolo, has a wealth of experience in the stock industry. He started FoodPix, a RM provider of food photography, and was one of the first third-party providers to Getty Images. When Getty decided to no longer represent the work of RF photographers acquired when they purchased Artville, Burke drew those photographers together, created Brand X and then got Getty to continue to represent that collection. Burke also created the Botanica brand and acquired nonstock. In July 2005 he sold his company to Jupiterimages and took on the role of SVP of Product Strategy.

By Jeffrey Burke

President, Picture Archive Council of America

Current state of the business

As most of us have seen over the past year and a half, our industry is in the midst - or possibly the trailing end - of another consolidation. Lots of companies have been acquired by other companies. The big companies seem to keep getting bigger. And because these big companies are creating ever more powerful and sophisticated websites and other internal systems, I believe that the barriers to entry into our business get higher and higher all the time. Yet, despite the acquisitions and increased barriers to entry, I am happy to report that PACA now has more member companies than at any time in its history.

The picture business is a good business. It's a fun and unique business, even if it's a business that very few people outside our industry know about or understand. I believe that the lure of image making and selling is, in large part, responsible for new companies and individuals becoming involved with our profession, and why so many of you are here today participating in our annual meeting.

The stock picture industry of today is much different than the industry my company entered into in 1994. Way back then - only 12 years ago - most stock picture companies were still delivering plastic pages filled with duplicate slides - or even camera original film! Most picture research was done by the agents themselves, fingering through file cabinets and using arcane knowledge to locate specific subjects. Film duping stations, endless rows of file cabinets with cryptic ordering systems and other memorabilia of the 20th century stock picture industry are now gone, or at least forgotten. Loops are in very short supply.

Technology advances have a lot to do with this forced march of change. More important than just technology, however, are the visions of a few key individuals who could find a way to embrace and harness those changes, to their benefit, and eventually that of the entire industry.

In 1989 Bill Gates had a vision of a world filled with digitized images presented on video screens everywhere. He, as much as anyone in our industry - or in the world - is responsible for the rapid movement to digitized images that we have experienced in the past 15 years.

In 1995, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein had a more industry-specific vision that capitalized on the benefits of consolidating a highly fragmented industry and centralizing online image distribution. That vision, and its successful execution, has served their company well, and changed the face of our industry. Their company has grown quickly and profited, and they are to be commended for a job well done.

Today, Alan Meckler and Jupiterimages have, apparently, another vision that involves positioning for the long awaited media convergence. Convergence - the event that has been 'just around the corner' for the past ten years - may now really be just around the corner. And if it is there will be significant changes to the products that our customers buy and the way that we all work. Can you say video and motion graphics? More on this in a few minutes.

'Competitive' and 'challenging' business environment

Vision has its place in this industry as in others, but practicality often counts more in today's business world. Creating the best images, selling them at the optimal price and placing them where customers will easily find them is what really matters in today's business environment. Potentially more important that tomorrow's visionaries are the 7 out of 10 customers today who vote with their wallets and decide that a royalty free license is more appropriate for their needs than a rights-managed license, or who prefer to visit one stock website over another.

I would describe today's business environment as both 'competitive' and 'challenging.' That is not to say that business is bad, such as it was in the post 9/11 and post tech bubble era. Hopefully those days are well behind us. What it does mean is that there is very little low-hanging fruit left to pluck off the tree, and that new competitors and established players alike will need to reach higher to harvest the profitable fruit.

How is the business 'competitive?' Getty Images represents a significant portion of the total stock picture business, and thus acts a bellwether for our industry. We can see from Getty's published sales data that industry sales volumes year over year are rising very slowly, if at all. The only significant revenue growth in this industry in past years has been consistent price increases to RF imagery by most publishers. We will probably soon, however, find a ceiling to those increases.

In such an environment, growth comes at the expense of one's competitors; if there is a dearth of new customers and markets, then sales growth must come right out of another company's hide. This is the competitive aspect of today's industry.

By 'challenging' I refer specifically to image pricing and implications to pricing in the near future from new licensing models, increasing competition and a growing supply of products in our market.

First, the competitive nature of the business that I just described makes it very difficult for any senior sales executive in our industry not to try to gain market share through discounting, especially for those few, key customers that represent potentially large sales volumes. In practice, we all know that 'The Big Three', as well as most other serious competitors, give standard discounts to their best customers on a regular basis. Nothing new there. The danger to pricing comes if aggressive discounting evolves into outright price competition.

Secondly, and potentially more important in the future, new licensing models based solely on price have the potential to pose a real price challenge to both rights managed and traditional RF (if there is such a thing). Remember that rights-managed licensing still commands the lions' share of the industry revenue, even if its sales volumes are significantly lower than RF.

Subscription licensing and micropayment (or 'community-based') models, though still relatively new and currently representing a very small portion of the total industry revenue, offer significantly lower prices as their competitive edge. Many will say that the quality of imagery from the 'citizen creator' image community that characterizes micropayment operations is not nearly as high as RM and traditional RF. Some in the art buying community also question the value and validity of their talent and property releases. But who knows how that will change in the months and years to come. After all, didn't we say the exact same thing about RF only 10 years ago?

Another industry challenge to be considered is the current state of the 'revenue per image' metric that so many of us use as a business barometer. Revenue per image, or 'RPI', is the average revenue that an image from any group of images produces within a given period of time, usually a year. As an example, if a group of 1,000 images produces $100,000 in a year, that group's average RPI is $100.

It has been anecdotally discussed by many, and reported on more comprehensively by my friend Jim Pickerell in his newsletter Selling Stock, that RPI's are apparently dropping at Getty and throughout much of the rest of the industry as well. This is not hard to understand if you work in production in this business. I have said for many months now that we are currently in the midst of an image production arms race, the likes of which our industry has never seen before. Images are being produced in vast quantities, from South Africa to California, and in India as well. Those images are being sold in large blocks to bigger companies, only to have those same image producers venture out and produce more. Cottage businesses specifically supporting the stock picture industry are popping up everywhere. To our industry's credit, we are becoming extremely efficient in producing good quality images in large volumes.

For picture buyers, this brings a huge boon in the form of fresh, new material. It means that any single image you license today or tomorrow will probably not be as widely seen and used by others as the best images in prior years had been. For the producers of stock images - stock agencies and individual photographers - however, this large supply of images represents yet another, significant challenge to be overcome, as we must recalibrate our expectations for per image revenues. It means that we must either accept lower RPI's and thus produce images more efficiently and inexpensively, or we must create significantly better images with higher production values just to keep pace with current revenue standards.

Effect on Photographers

Being a photographer myself for many years before becoming a stock agent, I would be remiss not mention the potential challenges now posed to stock photographers and illustrators, who are the backbone of our industry. They, certainly, feel the effect of lower revenue per image. A newer and more significant challenge to photographers, however, comes in the form of Wholly Owned image production by Getty, Corbis, Jupiter and others, which has suddenly become so prevalent in our industry.

Time was, back in the mom-and-pop stock agency days, that it was unrealistic for a small company to fund significant image production on a scale that mattered. Although both Comstock and Superstock made in-house image production a successful model many years ago, most others found that it was more profitable to let the photographers absorb the investment costs. Most agencies found it profitable enough to simply pay royalties.

Flash forward to today's stock picture industry of worldwide distribution, shorter product shelf life, publicly traded companies with a need for quarterly profits, and large amounts of investment capital around the world looking for a reasonable return, and you will see why Wholly Owned production makes sense now, more than ever before.

Stock photographers must learn to adapt to a new income model that includes larger, one-time payments, rather than the nearly perpetual income stream that was the hallmark of this industry. It means that they must keep working for a living, rather than making long-term investments in their images that would have continued to pay dividends into their retirement years. Although there will be a place for royalty bearing images in this industry for the foreseeable future, that place is getting smaller and smaller.

It also means, quite frankly, that there will be fewer and fewer photographers who will be able to earn a successful living solely from stock photography. This begs the question of whether stock photography, as an industry, will be able to retain its best and brightest producers. In a 'winner-take-all' scenario, a few very prolific and business-minded photographers, who can operate as efficient production companies, will probably be producing the bulk of new work delivered to the industry in the years to come.

Orphaned Works - An Immediate Threat

I have just outlined a few of the challenges to our industry that I believe must be considered and discussed for our industry's long-term benefit. I would now like to mention the largest, looming threat to our industry, which is the proposed Orphaned Works amendment to existing US copyright law that is now being considered and drafted by the United States Congress.

The concept behind Orphaned Works, which is to make intellectual property of all kinds that does not have a claim of copyright by a living individual, estate or other entity, available for publication is a worthy concept. It helps to prevent our society from losing valuable works of art that simply don't have an owner who could allow their publication and their continued public viewing. It helps to protect some of the many important images that are a part of our cultural heritage from being lost in a locked closet.

In practice, however, allowing anyone to publish any work with only minimal research as to whether or not those works are truly orphaned, invites misuse of the law, and in a worst-case scenario, invites blatant, large scale image infringement and theft. What's more, the proposed legislation removes nearly all, viable penalties for infringers when caught, and makes collection efforts unprofitable at best. As proposed thus far, Orphaned Works is a train wreck coming in our direction.

This issue affects more than just our industry, but any individual or company that produces works in art for a living. It affects our customers nearly as much as ourselves, as they, too, are creators of intellectual property that could be subject to abuse.

I am proud to say that PACA, notably through our excellent legal counsel, Nancy Wolff, has been a leading proponent in the fight to correct this poorly crafted legislation. Together with our sister organizations ASMP and PPofA, as well as many other trade associations such as ASPP, APA, SAA, and others, PACA is helping to make a difference to the future livelihoods of everyone who creates images, text, music, movies and all other forms of intellectual property across this country.

The fight to correct Orphaned Works legislation still has many weeks and months ahead. PACA is determined to stand firm for the concept of copyright as a creator's means of receiving fair compensation for their skill and hard work. We have already increased our legal budget to allow us to continue this fight. We will report back to you at every step of this journey about our progress. We will not give up this fight.

Changing nature of the industry

If most everything that I have mentioned up to this point seems ominous and foreboding then take heart; it gets better from here on. There are bright spots to our industry and, indeed, a few solid opportunities to be had by those who can grasp the possibilities and turn them into profitable realities. In order to fully appreciate them, however, we need to think about the changing nature of our industry, and the world, and the opportunities that change brings.

At the outset of this talk, I mentioned the long-awaited media convergence that we have all anticipated for many years. Although this phrase has several meanings, I think that we are most interested in the delivery of various rich media to the desktop. Text, pictures, motion graphics, the spoken word, music, and full length movies woven together into a seamless presentation that is easy to access and enjoyable to watch - and even to interact with and respond to - is an everyday occurrence that we are moving closer to at this moment.

Although many of us are already accustomed to such an experience, we must remember that living in the US and working in a corporate environment that provides big Internet bandwidth and fast computers makes us part of what is still a privileged group in this world. Many people still have access to the Internet only through dial-up connections using slow, outdated equipment. Many more still have no access to the Internet and computing at all. This will change.

As it does, there will be more and more incentive for published material to incorporate this rich media. And there will be increased demand not only for the products our industry currently provides, but for other media as well. Again I ask, can you say video and motion graphics? This is an opportunity that awaits the stock picture industry. But it's not as simple as just that.

A few weeks ago Alan Meckler mentioned a phrase to me that I had not heard before: 'Creative Destruction.' I looked this up on the Wikipedia and found that it was an economics term. As usual, whenever I encounter an economics term that I don't understand (and having been an art major in college, there are plenty) I usually go right to the source for clarity. I called Joe LaCugna.

"Ah," Joe said to me, "you mean Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist and his theory of 'gales of creative destruction'." As usual, Joe was the right person to ask about this. Creative Destruction refers to the concept of industrial transformation that accompanies radical innovation. For us, this means that as new technology or business practices become prevalent and create new market opportunities, many of the older established businesses, even whole industries, might suffer serious declines, or extinction.

I realized that I had experienced this myself first hand many years ago. My first job out of college was as an art director at a large ad agency. That agency had its own production department at that time, and had just spent $100,000 on a new Mergenthaler typesetting machine. They had also hired a very highly trained operator to run the thing, and leased space in the building to house the machine and paste-up tables and industrial strength waxers. If some of the younger people in the audience don't know what an industrial strength waxer looks like then you will get my point. This was in 1981.

In 1984 the Macintosh was launched, and soon after that Apple introduced the Postscript-driven LaserWriter. Radical Innovation. Needless to say, today Merganthaler is no more than a nameplate, and dedicated typesetting equipment is in the same category as industrial strength waxers.

The point of all this is not to say that stock picture companies will soon become extinct. Not hardly! Our products are necessities for even the most casual forms of publishing, online or in print. The world is becoming increasing visually literate, and demands more than just text with stories. Pictures have a very bright future and an ever-growing place in our world.

What I am saying is that success in the future in our industry will require more than just adding video clips or other motion graphics to our product offerings. It means understanding the opportunities of Convergence along with the perils of Creative Destruction. It means not remaining over-committed to established business models and customers at the expense of new and emerging opportunities. To truly thrive and evolve as an important world industry we in the stock picture business must begin to think of ourselves as more than just picture mongers.

Images will soon become part of a larger, diversified product industry that includes video, flash, music, fonts, 3D animations, Java applets and more. We need to understand multi-media, rich media, other media, and how they relate to the published page. We need to begin broadly addressing the future needs of the advertising and publishing industries as they begin their march towards providing information and entertainment to a world filled with big bandwidth and convergent devices. In the future, the Picture Archive Council of America may become the Media Components Archive of America. It's not far-fetched.

Photographers and illustrators are already becoming multi media creators. As a member of the Academic Advisory Board for Brooks Institute of Photography, I can tell you that, at Brooks, view camera education as a core instruction will likely be going away very soon, while video editing and other, broader graphic arts training is now becoming a standard requirement for photography students.

Stock picture companies must become multi-media components companies, and would do well to become conversant with more than just focus and composition, but also with video editing and scoring and particle animation and flash technology and many, many other craft specifics. Most important, we must create new website interfaces that show the possibilities of these many, divergent crafts assembled and displayed together.

Jupiterimages has already begun walking down this path, by virtue of its many recent acquisitions that are beyond the bounds of traditional still imagery. Others will likely follow. Those who begin to think like this and properly position their companies for the coming change over the next few years will find advantages in the future.

Near to Mid Term Opportunites

For some down to earth opportunities, let's talk about emerging markets. Bill Gates mentioned "more and more online media consumption" in his remarks in New York last month at the Corbis media event. Corbis Mobile seems poised to attack the electronic and mobile device use of imagery in a thoughtful way. Other companies are certainly moving to approach that growing market as well.

Various new electronic uses for images on newly designed convergent devices may have possibilities for growing additional new revenue sources in our industry. Only time will tell what the opportunities will be and how many more dollars these electronic uses for images will add to the overall industry.

Although we are already a truly global industry, we may likely soon find profitable, new geographic markets in the next few years. India has a growing and prosperous middle class that may soon become a viable market for our images. Because that country is now a primary world provider of software to all industries, it seems that there is a general respect for intellectual property, which is a prerequisite for our business.

China may be different, however. In business school, vast potential new markets like China are often identified with the "Q-Tip Theory;" if a company could sell one Q-Tip for every ear in China it would undoubtedly make a fortune. This seems reasonable. Unlike Q-Tips, however, digital content is not made of raw materials, and is easily and cheaply reproduced. China, Russia and much of the rest of Asia do not yet seem to have the same sensibility and respect for IP that India seems to have already, either within their culture at large, or specifically as a practice of their governments.

It has been reported that less than 10% of the Chinese government's own computers are using properly licensed versions of Microsoft Office, the rest being illegally copied and distributed. If the Chinese government cannot set an example of respect for intellectual property, even as a member of the WTO, what kind of a message does that send to the businesses and individuals in that country? How viable a market will this become, and when? Participating in these markets today is a risk.

But with risk comes reward. I know that a number of software companies and even some picture companies are making long-term commitments to those markets in the hope that they will someday soon begin to flourish. If the risk associated with these markets pans then out significant new revenue from across the oceans may yet flow into our industry.

I previously mentioned micropayment sites as a potential challenge to pricing for all picture products in the industry. The positive side of this new model is that it can bring some level growth to our industry. It can do so by inviting those many small businesses and individuals who can't afford to license an image using today's pricing models, to purchase a picture simply and cheaply. Micropayment sites are a solid opportunity that our industry has to create and capture a whole new market of image users, potentially even the elusive consumer market, which as an industry, we have never successfully been able to do before. To succeed in a meaningful way, however, that new market of small users must grow very, very large. Again, time will tell.

Another thought worth considering for stock picture companies is that the many new license models and pricing strategies emerging today will more distinctly segment our many customers into a few, distinct and diverse groups. Some still purchase RM images primarily, while others are strictly RF buyers. Some are happy solely with subscription products, and some only spend a few dollars in total per year. Each different level of customer, from high value corporate art buyer to occasional SOHO user, has their own needs and preferences.

Savvy providers are beginning to tailor their offerings and create new, related services for each of those different customer groups. They should be able to provide appropriate and profitable products and new value-added services that are right for these customers.

Corbis continues to expand its 3rd party rights clearance and licensing services. Both Getty and Corbis offer asset management services and assignment photography representation. Other companies may be able to identify new, related services that may become substantive revenue generators. These new products and services are an opportunity to offer a side of 'fries' with the basic picture 'burger.' What shape those fries take, whether crinkle cut or tater tots, will be realized through our industry's future innovations.

Something else that has tremendous promise for our industry is the rampant amount of image piracy found on the Internet today. Piracy as an opportunity? You bet! PicScout and Idée, the two leading image recognition technology companies, report that 80-90% of all images found on websites today are image comps never intended for final use. That's right, our images used illegally on websites represent a potentially huge revenue source that we simply can't address today.

Why can't we address this? PicScout and Idée both offer services that can find our images in use on the web. But then what? These companies, using today's business practices, offer only half the solution. We do not currently have systems in place in our industry that makes clear whether or not an image in use has been properly licensed. We do not have standard, universal business practices, as other industries do, that clearly define a license, and provide an opportunity to enforce compliance.

PLUS as a Key Solutions Provider

This brings me to one of the most important parts of my address to you today. And that is the potential of the PLUS initiative. PLUS, the Picture Licensing Universal System, is a coalition of organizations and individuals working together to build a universal picture-licensing standard. As many of you are already aware, this initiative has been in development for nearly 3 years. PLUS, through its comprehensive Glossary of Terms, its Standardized Matrix of Uses, and its Standardized License Data Format, offers us a number of opportunities to fully modernize our industry and bring picture-licensing practices into the 21st century.

PLUS can become a keystone of future compliance efforts. Imagine that by this time two years from now, all digitized images provided to clients by stock agencies and individual photographers alike contain metadata or image headers that fully describe the licensed uses allowable for those images. Imagine that PicScout, Idée or others send spiders onto the web to find our pictures, and can tell, in an instant, which pictures are licensed and which are not. Imagine those companies creating an automated compliance notification system, based on the PLUS standards, that generate letters to website owners requiring a license fee or demanding image removal.

The music industry has long had such industry policing through ASCAP and BMI. Why can't we do the same thing? At the very least, PLUS helps to reinforce the concept of respect for intellectual property and image ownership.

But there are many more benefits to PLUS than just licensing compliance.

  • For our customers, PLUS offers a method of comparing 'apples-to-apples' pricing and use between image providers, thus helping them to make educated purchasing decisions without confusion. What's good for our customers is good for our industry.

  • Also for our customers, PLUS creates a solid foundation for universal image asset management. Most DAM software companies have indicated their support for this initiative and welcome its introduction into the marketplace.

  • For picture providers, both stock and assignment, PLUS adds value to Rights-Managed licensing and helps to justify higher prices associated with that model. In short, it promotes the benefits associated with an RM license in the face of continuing challenges from RF competition.

  • PLUS provides a foundation for universal real time rights management that can help to clearly and cleanly manage image rights through the increasingly intricate web of image distribution around the world.

  • Regarding the previously mentioned Orphaned Works, it is likely that some form of that legislation will soon be enacted into law. PLUS, as a neutral, non-profit organization that already has support from most leading trade associations representing both creators and users of images, has the unique ability to play a key role in providing a solution to determining whether or not an image is truly orphaned, or simply being kidnapped.

  • Finally, in an increasingly automated world, PLUS has the ability to make the transactional process associated with purchasing, reporting and paying of royalties more automated and efficient, and less time consuming and expensive.

PLUS is primarily a volunteer organization that relies upon the donations of time and money from participants in this industry. PLUS can bring these many potential benefits, for both providers and users of images, to the market by the beginning of 2007. But this initiative needs your support. It is a large, complicated and expensive task to create a useable and universally accepted business system. Even with the many volunteers that have generously given their time and talents to this effort, the initiative remains a costly endeavor. PLUS is racing against the clock to launch it's system by the end of this year.

Here and now, I call upon the leaders of our industry to financially support and endorse this important initiative.

Specifically, I challenge Getty Images and Corbis to join with Jupitermedia, Adobe and others who are already supporting this coalition through generous financial contributions, to the future benefit of their companies and all who license images for a living.

I challenge every PACA member to join PLUS and support it, as your trade association already has. It's easy to do; visit the website and have your credit card ready.

I call upon all of you art buyers here today to find out more about PLUS and the benefits that it can bring to your workflow and your daily environment and your companies. Visit the PLUS website at to find out more about what PLUS can do for you. Pay specific attention to the list of senior buyers in our industry who have already joined the PLUS Art Buyers' Committee. You, too, can join PLUS, through your company or as an individual. Then, ask for it where you buy your pictures. In the end it is you, those who license images for your living, that will ultimately determine whether or not this vision becomes a reality.


Finally today, on a personal note, I am announcing that my wife, Lorraine Triolo, and I have decided to step down from our positions with Jupiterimages at the end of this month, and retire from the industry we have worked at for many years. Although we enjoy this business very much and have been successful over the years, we realize that it is now time for us to move onto the next chapter of our lives and our careers.

This was not an easy decision to make, especially because we feel close to our family at PictureArts, the many people who are our new, larger family at Jupiterimages, and our many friends and colleagues throughout the industry. Although we will miss being an active part of the industry, the friendships that we have made in this business will stay with us.

I will also be stepping down from my position on the PACA Executive Committee, confident in the knowledge that our incoming board, led by my friend Roger Ressmeyer as our new president, will carry on the PACA mission.

I do intend to remain active, however, as the chairman of the board of the PLUS Coalition, as it is an initiative that I feel passionate about. I will work hard, along with my good friend Jeff Sedlik, PLUS' CEO, to see this initiative become a reality.

Gary Shenk from Corbis made the comment to me recently that the people in this business transcend their companies. It's people, after all, that make an industry, regardless of whose corporate hat they wear. Lorraine and I are glad to have known the many interesting people - and especially some of the very colorful personalities - that are the stock picture business. It's been great working with all of you.

Thank you all for your time this morning.

Copyright © 2006 Jeffrey Burke. 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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