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Bend Over For Riser

The name may sound more like an Alcopop aimed at teens or a post-modernist smut rag than a picture collection, but Riser, Getty Images’ new brand, has certainly stimulated potential contributors since it was announced on August 2.

The press release described Riser as an “industry-leading fusion of quality, flexibility and simplicity” and was peppered with the kind of buzzwords and marketing speak so beloved of the air kissing brigade. “We’re excited,” gushed Getty marketing vice president Robert Gubas, “to be the first imagery provider to offer this synergy of efficiency and effectiveness.”

So what makes Riser different? The key is that it is Getty’s –indeed the world’s – first so-called Rights Ready image license. The new license form is pitched as an alternative to Rights Managed, sometimes regarded as too complex for clients, and Royalty Free, often regarded as too cheap. But Riser’s terms are very much closer to RF than RM. In particular, and critically, the duration and territory rights of Riser licenses are unlimited, meaning that a client could conceivably purchase a single license and publish the image on a daily basis until the end of time without any extra payment.

Some photographers described Riser as a flawed but “interesting” opportunity. Some even fantasised that Riser and RR could attract low budget clients away from RF to a higher cost license model, although they failed to present any argument to support this thesis. Far more likely is that it will drag clients away from RM: after all they will be offered immensely more usage for what Getty admits will be a comparable price.

It was only a very few who spotted the greatest danger. Namely that no image licensed under Riser could ever again be licensed exclusively even if the photographer subsequently left Getty and took their images with them: the perpetual aspect of the Riser license would prevent that. A secondary effect is that the image essentially becomes a permanent part of the Getty collection

What’s not so new about Riser is the content. Much of it is being culled from existing Getty collections, in many cases pictures that haven’t sold well or at all. So not only is Riser really just RF it’s also to a certain extent a simple car boot sale. “You wouldn’t buy these as RM? Fine – you can have them as RF instead!”

Many Getty stock contributors reacted first with confusion, then consternation. The first they heard of Riser was the press release, followed by a letter from the agency informing them that some of their images were being moved to the new collection. Getty has described the photographers’ letter as an “invitation” to participate in Riser, but many didn’t see it that way, interpreting it as a fait accompli. It was only when some contributors objected that Getty responded that participation was voluntary.

But even that was unclear. One photographer reported being told that under the terms of the Getty contract the agency is not only entitled to move pictures to the Riser brand, but also to do so without notifying contributors. Of course this raises much broader issues regarding Getty’s contract and the agency’s relations with photographers. Apparently Getty believes its photographers’ contract allows it move images not just between brands, but also to change the license terms under which an image is offered. However many Getty photographers who oppose RF signed what they believed to be a contract that would only allow Getty to sell their images as RM. Clearly the two interpretations of the contract are incompatible.

At this point Getty-watchers and cynics – it’s hard to be one and not the other – will have difficulty suppressing a wry grin as they recall that the very contract which permits Getty to do this is the one that photographers negotiated with the agency in 2001 and proclaimed as a victory. At that time some Getty contributors walked, claiming the contract was unsafe and unfair, while the majority, now facing the implications of Riser, signed. The phrase caveat emptor springs to mind; or possibly “never give a sucker an even break”.

But leaving aside the photographers’ discomfort one intriguing hint has emerged from Getty explaining their failure to inform contributors about Riser in advance of the public announcement. A company executive has claimed that Getty became aware that a rival agency was developing a similar product and Riser was therefore rush released, leading to a breakdown in communication. Whether one chooses to believe that in advance of the appearance of any similar model to Riser largely depends on whether one is a believer in cock-up or conspiracy. If true, however, it must raise questions over the major agency players’ commitment to the PLUS coalition. PLUS’ raison d’etre after all is the clarification of the RM licensing system, thus removing those claims of over complexity. But when a PLUS member – as Getty is – launches a licensing model which if successful is bound to undermine the RM model, what future for PLUS?

We understand that M’Learned Friends have now become involved in the Riser wrangle, although the truth is Getty have little to fear. Their stock contributors have proved remarkably accommodating to the agency in the past, and despite the complaints there’s no reason to believe things will be any different this time. Having bought into the idea that the only way they can successfully market their pictures is by availing themselves of Getty’s marketing muscle they are in a poor position to resist when that muscle is turned on them. So even as the lube is being applied many will doubtless be reassuring themselves that Riser is an “interesting” new opportunity.

As the good doctor said: you buy the ticket, you take the ride.

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