Lens, the photojournalism blog of The New York Times, took a fresh look  this week at the Chris Usher case . The case has garnered new attention because Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court nominee, was on the three-judge panel that affirmed the decision to award Usher the trifling sum of $7 per image for the loss of more than 12,600 images by Corbis.
The most remarkable part of the Times post is when a Corbis lawyer compares photography with nails:
Why would photographers be immune from the laws of economics? … If I had a 20-year-old business selling nails, and you were interested in buying my nail business, would you not look at how it performed? Would you not look at the gross revenue over 20 years and at the net and what the competition is, in order to fix a price? Why would photographers think they’re immune from these things? It’s a commodity.
No, Corbis, photography is not a commodity. But the sad fact is, you are attempting to turn it into one. To the detriment of photographers — and yourselves.
Is Photography a Commodity?
According to Wikipedia:
A commodity is something for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. It is a product that is the same no matter who produces it, such as petroleum, notebook paper, or milk. In other words, copper is copper. The price of copper is universal, and fluctuates daily based on global supply and demand. Stereos, on the other hand, have many levels of quality. And, the better a stereo is [perceived to be], the more it will cost.
Does photography sound more like petroleum or a stereo to you?
Photography is rarely “supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.” Every photographer worthy of being called a professional works hard to differentiate his or her product from that of other photographers.
Nor is it “a product that is the same no matter who produces it.” Whether your image is good, bad or somewhere in between, I couldn’t reproduce it if I wanted to — because the moment captured in that photograph has passed forever.
Blurring the Lines
But there is another part of the definition of a commodity that is telling. As Wikipedia puts it:
One of the characteristics of a commodity good is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Well-established physical commodities have actively traded spot and derivative markets. Generally, these are basic resources and agricultural products such as iron ore, crude oil, coal, ethanol, salt, sugar, coffee beans, soybeans, aluminum, rice, wheat, gold and silver.
Is photography priced as a function of the market as a whole? Well, this is where the lines get blurry.
Now that companies like Getty Images are offering images on a subscription model, the perception of photography is changing. Bundling images from different photographers and pricing them as a service makes the individual images seem interchangeable, doesn’t it?
Not that photography is currently marketed like crude oil or corn, but it certainly is heading in that direction. From Newscom to PixPalace to GumGum to PicApp, there are more and more places trying to become de facto trade markets for photography.
But photography is not a commodity. So why is it being marketed as one?
The real culprits are the photo agencies that have intentionally dissociated value from pricing in an effort to keep photographers under their thumbs.
They want to convince buyers that the real value of their offering is in the service of supplying photography, rather than in selling amazing, one-of-a-kind photographs. Because conceding the latter would put more power in your hands as a photographer.
Ultimately, this strategy hurts everyone — including the agencies, which are slowly destroying themselves.
For photographers, the choice should be clear. If an agency offers subscriptions, or compares photography with nails, it is not your friend. Don’t let your precious jewels fall into their unending flow of rocks — and be priced accordingly.