In a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill quipped, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government—except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
The current state of the commercial photography industry could be described the same way. Today's model of licensing photos surely isn't the best system—photographers are increasingly underpaid and it's becoming more and more difficult to sustain the profession. But it's simply the best model we've got.
Stock photo agency Getty Images is planning to at least try something new. Getty announced this morning that it's ending its relationship with Yahoo's popular social photography site, Flickr. The current Getty Flickr collection will be renamed after its crowdsourced microstock app "Moment." Getty had used Flickr as a proving ground for finding new contributors, and according to e-mails from Getty circulating the web, nothing will change for current Getty contributors. It's part of a larger strategy as the company re-invents itself in a world where so many images are just a Google search away.
If you haven't heard, Getty also recently announced a new program in which millions of its photos are now available for free embedding on blogs and in social media, just like Youtube videos and Twitter posts. When embedded, these images include a small box at the bottom that displays Getty's logo and links to a page on Getty's site where you can license the image in question.
As Joshua Benton pointed out in a blog post at Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, the terms of service attached to Getty's image embeds have a couple interesting caveat: Getty reserves the right to collect data on these embedded images, and can even place ads over the embedded photos in the future.
While no ads are currently in place, Benton rightly suggests that at any point in the future, Getty could "flip a switch" and place millions of advertisements all over the web. Perhaps more importantly, it could place specific, targeted ads based on your location and personal info.
So your Red Sox blog has 90% readership in the New England area? Well, I'm sure a New England car dealership would be happy to pay good money to advertise directly to your readers. All of that money would go to Getty, while none would go to the author of the post. It's a similar situation with ads over most Youtube videos: Most of that revenue goes to Google and the video owner, not the blogger who embeds it on a site.
The big question is how much of that money will go to the photographers who actually create these photos and who own the copyright on the images. As of now, there's no answer, and reaction from pro photographers has been mixed. Most major news sites that use Getty's photos pay a licensing fee that gives them limited ownership rights. Sites like USA Today and CNN can use the images freely, resize them at will, and utilize them to promote other services. Ditto for companies selling products who use Getty's stock photos in advertisements.
Getty's wager here is that there are thousands of bloggers currently stealing Getty images who, if given the option, would use free embed tool instead. The music industry used a similar gambit to turn millions of Napster and Kazaa pirates into paying Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes users. But while music sales are all about ownership, images are the ephemeral currency of the web, shared freely.
The hope is that if this image service takes off in the same way, Getty could begin to monetize all these embeds and pass on a chunk of that money to photographers. Some photographers' groups have already questioned whether this money will ever arrive. And if it does, what hope do photographers have of securing their fair chunk of it?
But while the idea of collecting user data or placing targeted ads seems nebulous compared to asking customers to just pay a nominal fee for unlimited usage, this is increasingly how the Internet works. Facebook, Yahoo, and even Google itself make money by monetizing users, often by collecting data on them and serving targeted ads.
Those companies have to balance the cost of acquiring users against how much money they can squeeze out of them, but Getty will have thousands of bloggers working to build an audience on its behalf. The only cost to Getty is hosting the images on its servers.
The key will be getting bloggers to use the embedding service in the first place, rather than simply stealing photos or sneakily eliminating the links back to Getty's site. The company simply doesn't have the ability to sue the thousands of people who will share a single photo of Jennifer Lawrence falling down in her Oscar gown. But if Getty's service can make finding that photo and posting it a more hassle-free experience, it could convert a big chunk of those image pirates into valuable users.
At the very least, it's a new carrot in a game where photo agencies simply don't have enough sticks. As for photographers? Well, whether they're full-time professionals or occasional contributors, they don't have much of a choice other than to sit back and see what happens next.