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Trouble In TinyTown

The citizens of TinyTown are not happy.

TinyTown, for those who haven’t visited, is where contributors to microstock agencies such as iStockphotophoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia and others gather, in part because the agencies’ own forums often take exception to the language of their contributors. Yes, it’s the C-word again: censorship. Fed up with the mysterious termination and disappearance of threads critical of their agencies, the microshooters launched a forum where they could discuss their 20-cent careers free from interference.

Many TinyTown residents, the iStockphoto tribe in particular, were jubilant when Getty Images bought iStockphoto last February for a distinctly non-micro price: $50 million. In their eyes becoming part of the Getty empire lent them a degree of respectability that they had previously lacked, and they also looked forward to benefiting from Getty’s marketing clout. TinyTown, in particular the iStockphoto neighbourhood, was moving upmarket. Or so they thought.

But the iStockers have since discovered what many professional photographers learned long ago: when you sit down with Getty there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

The first thing to hit them was disambiguation. Huh? In plain language, this was the introduction by Getty of a controlled vocabulary at iStock in an attempt to assert some order over contributors’ anarchic keywording. Photographers were told to re-keyword, or disambiguate, their files or offending material would be junked.

Disambiguation left some iStockphoto contributors feeling distinctly discombobulated: “frustrating”, “time consuming”, “never-ending” and “a mess” were among the terms used to describe the process set up to meet the new standards.

Not surprisingly the extra work led some to query the nature of their relationship with iStock: “If I had 2,000 files, I’d tell them to stick their DA’ing where the sun doesn’t shine. If iStock keep 80% of the fees earned on selling my images they ought to lend a big helping hand.”

No sooner had they recovered from disambiguation than the iStockers made another unpleasant discovery: iStock’s search algorithms have been tweaked to give preference to those who give the micro-agent exclusivity. They were then faced with a very unambiguous choice: give Getty & iStock exclusive access to their work or watch their images sink to the bottom of the search returns.

Some iStockers, incensed by the Getty-inspired changes, began to cast around for alternative distribution. And ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, that alternative may turn out to be Getty. For while one part of Getty was laying down the law at iStock, another part of the corporation was launching a new operation, Getty Open.

Open is essentially Son Of Photographer’s Choice, which has run for four years now, and is the kind of scheme only Getty could dream up, and only Getty photographers could fall for. Having had the agency reject images as unmarketable, photographers can then pay Getty $75 per image to have them marketed anyway. In its way PC is the perfect example of Getty’s true genius: they don’t even have to sell any images to make money, simply exploit photographers’ vanity to convince them to pony up for hosting. Non-Getty photographers blanch at the idea of paying the world’s largest picture agency a hosting fee on top of Getty’s very hefty percentage. Nevertheless many PC contributors claim that the system works for them, although figures are notably hard to come by: and it’s very difficult to believe that all PC images turn a profit. Except of course for Getty.

Open has a cheaper payment scheme than PC – $50 per image with a limit of 40 images per photographer – but otherwise it is very similar, with one crucial difference: it’s open to all photographers, not just established Getty contributors. And that also means disgruntled micro-shooters, so long as they pass Getty’s normally rigorous technical specifications. And interestingly, Getty appear to have lowered their technical specs for Open, accepting files from cameras that they regard as unacceptable elsewhere: the kind of cameras some microshooters might own, in fact.

The microshooters were paying attention, and some at least saw an opportunity to move up a league. Remove my best sellers from iStock, runs the theory, pay to submit them to Open, then sit back and wait for the real money to roll in.

There’s only one problem: Getty’s more established photographers, some of them PC contributors, have been eyeing up Open for themselves.

There is, to put it mildly, little love lost between the microshooters and traditional stock photographers, and in particular microshooters and Getty stock photographers. The former disparagingly refer to the latter as Trads, while the latter, who prefer to describe themselves as artists, respond by calling the microshooters Laughing Stock. While the iStockers were celebrating the Getty deal in February, their new colleagues didn’t exactly welcome them into the family. Some of Getty’s artistes have an extraordinarily high opinion of themselves, and their reaction to the Getty-iStock nuptials was largely that of Lord Muck learning that his daughter had decided to elope with a Millwall fan.

But in an Open shootout between stock artistes and iStock arrivistes it may well be the newcomers who do best in the long run. For one thing they will often have lower production costs than the professionals. And they may be better able to afford the cost of paying Getty for hosting: after all many iStockers don’t rely on photography to actually make a living. If, as the artistes claim, the iStockers are simply vanity publishers, it follows that their vanity may well stretch to paying Getty for placement even at a financial loss, something that the pros can ill-afford. After all, amateurs don’t need to make money from photography: professionals do.

For Getty it won’t matter either way: their cut will be the same whoever’s images sell, and they make money even if nothing sells – on the hosting fees. And clients will simply buy whichever image takes their fancy: why should they care whether the photographer is a professional or not?

So the losers are likely to be the artistes: and who’ll be the laughing stock then?


Comments on this article:

Trads will meet the micros and I concurr, the micros will prevail… You can call us Tiny Town, but the virulent pattern of aggregation of new photographers and new material will run like a pandemic that will let only the fittest on their feet.

Comment #1 posted by Cocobolo Cabezas at 3 December, 12:24 AM

Mr Headley you would be wise to keep your head down in this debate. Don’t you profit from charging amateur photographers a monthly fee on the promise of selling their holiday snaps and family album pictures? When you make sales you keep a high percentage for yourself and seem to only make very low priced deals. How much do you make from photographers and how much do you make licencing images? How many of your photographers cover the subscription cost that they pay to you each month?

Comment #3 posted by Ian Murray at 22 December, 10:32 AM

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