Stock photographers are up in arms. They’re angry — and understandably so.
But they’re not right about everything, and rage only gets you so far. As the photography industry continues to struggle with heightened competition, reduced demand and lower prices, photographers must learn to take action, both for themselves and for their industry, with the same energy with which they voice their complaints.
The latest round of fury has been triggered by Getty’s decision to change its contributor agreement. Most notably, these changes allow Getty the right to include all royalty-free content in its subscription package. They also remove the right for contributors to block Getty selling any of their images on a royalty-free basis.
If you’ve submitted your images to Getty, agreeing to the new terms will mean that Getty will be able to sell your images to buyers who can do with them almost anything they want for as long as they want at a low price fixed by the company.
Photographers Lose Control
For many photographers, these changes represent a slap in the face — and the wallet.
Images bought through a subscription pay significantly lower fees than those bought off the shelf. And royalty-free licenses tend to be cheaper than rights-managed licenses. So there’s a good chance that Getty’s stock contributors will see a drop in income as their images are moved into the royalty-free inventory and sold to subscribers.
And after an image has been sold once on a royalty-free basis, it’s just about impossible to sell usage rights to it again.
The change also makes tracking usage harder. When a buyer is paying for a specific use, any other appearance of the image is a breach of copyright and a start of a legal complaint. Because royalty-free images can be used in multiple ways, contributors have to assume that those uses have been paid for.
But the biggest concern isn’t reduced income or the increased difficulty of identifying illicit use.
It’s the loss of control.
As the APA put it after hiring law firm Nelson & McCulloch to discuss the changes with Getty — and after the stock company had refused to respond:
As the creator and owner of the intellectual property, the photographer has the inherent right to determine how an image is to be licensed, including whether an image should be maintained as an RM or RF image. Getty Images’ effort to leverage its position in the industry to undermine that fundamental right and force its contributors to relinquish control over the manner in which their creative works are licensed is completely improper.
This is the heart of the struggle between stock photographers and the sellers who represent them (in return for a large share of the sales price.) It’s certainly a better point than the APA’s original assertion that the changes were “unnecessary” and that “rights-managed licensing has been in existence for decades and is the preferred method of licensing high-value content,” which just made the APA seem tone-deaf to market realities.
The battle now is over how much control photographers must grant those who would sell their images. And frankly, both sides have reasons to feel indignant in their positions — and reasons to feel embarrassed about them, too.
Getty Knows Best
For Getty, forcing photographers to take or leave the new arrangement does little to encourage a relationship of trust with the stock company. It’s an expression of arrogance, a statement that Getty knows best and that photographers should stop worrying and focus on taking pictures.
Getty could have handled this better. The company might have provided financial incentives to contributors to make their images available to royalty-free subscribers. Persuasion generally makes for a better relationship than coercion. Getty’s iStockphoto, for example, uses all sorts of incentives to encourage contributors to be exclusive without ever forcing it as a condition.
But even if Getty bungled this change, the truth is that many photographers are completely unrealistic about what it takes to sell images today. Commenting on APhotoEditor.com, stock photographer William Huber said that he was launching his own site because:
Unique images deserve the moon and the stars.
Great images might well deserve astronomical prices in photographers’ minds, but stock companies like Getty know better than to demand them. That clearly isn’t true of every photographer. Getty exists to sell pictures, and it wants the freedom to do it in the way that it thinks is best.
And it’s hard for photographers to complain too much when the stock giant drops its considerable weight on them. One of the main benefits of using Getty is that its size has made the company the default choice for many photo buyers. Photographers contributing images to the company has given it that heft, and they’ve benefited from it. They can hardly be surprised when the giant turns on them.
So where does that leave today’s stock photographers?
Ultimately, it leaves them with some difficult choices to make. Contributors can accept that Getty understands buyers and their demands better than they do, agree to the changes and make up for the lower fees by contributing more images.
They can emulate William Huber by cutting out the middle man, selling directly themselves and swapping time behind the camera for time marketing.
Or they can look for one of the many alternative services that offer stock with more control but to a much smaller customer base.
Making that decision won’t be easy. But it will be a lot more constructive than just getting angry.