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The Turkeys Vote For Christmas

These are exciting times at the Starving Artistes Association. A few months ago SAA members were shocked – shocked! – to discover that members of their own board of directors were involved in the Royalty Free business. It seems that during last year’s board elections some of the subsequently elected candidates somehow, ahem, forgot to mention their RF interests. For an organisation so publicly and vehemently opposed to RF the revelation was akin to the Temperance Society discovering that its leaders are partial to a drop of the hard stuff.

Having been caught on the RF sauce the board did the indecent thing: they set about transforming the SAA into the Last Chance RF Saloon. A proposal was presented for members to vote on: that the SAA should change its status to “an international association of professional photographers and others who create visual works for stock licensing.” This was in stark contrast to the SAA’s previous status of “a global trade association dedicated to the interests of Rights Managed stock photographers”.

Not surprisingly some members were unimpressed, having paid to join an organisation that claimed to champion the interests of professional RM photographers and oppose RF in principle, and a full and frank exchange of views ensued. Not so much a debate as a lengthy, slam-bang, no holds barred brawl: like a month long Magnum annual general meeting, but without the goodwill.

The RM camp’s position was simple. Essentially RF is, if not the work of the Devil, then at least that of agents, distributors and clients whose interests run contrary to that of photographers. It represents not quite loss of copyright, but certainly loss of control of images and their potential for proper financial exploitation, at least by the creators.

”...RM was s-o-o-o twentieth century…”

The RF proponents’ was far more entertaining. Basically their thesis was that RM was s-o-o-o twentieth century: too complex for a new breed of attention-deficient clients to understand, and too slow for the lightning speed of cyber-commerce. What was needed was exciting, cutting edge – and simple – new licensing models: the next big thing.

What this argument conveniently ignored, of course, is that RF has been around for some 20 years. Portraying it as the next big thing is like claiming Cool Britannia is cutting edge and Tony Blair will be the next Prime Minister.

Best of all however was the claim that by allowing RF photographers to join, the SAA would suddenly have Getty Images, their bête noir, quaking in their corporate boots. “Zut alors!” would be Getty’s reaction. “The SAA isn’t just a grumpy minority of our RM contributors: they represent everyone!” You can just see Jonathan Klein clambering onto the ledge now, can’t you?

Gobbled Up By Royalty Free: the SAA don’t know which way to turn

When the dust had settled and the bodies counted the board had got their way. Perhaps this is not so surprising. During the blizzard of contradictory statistics tossed around by the combatants one of the more interesting claims to emerge was that a large number of SAA members were themselves already under the RF influence – albeit under false names of course.

”...the artistic gene pool would not be polluted….”

But although the vote is over the fun is only just beginning. One of the issues raised during the, uh, debate was that opening the SAA to RF photographers potentially also opened membership to micro-shooters. After all, RF is what they do, and if the SAA is serious about its educational mission then who better to welcome for a spot of re-education than those the SAA believes are most in need. Anything else would be churlish.

But the board were having none of that. It was made plain in the run-up to the vote that these were only going to be quality, traditional, RF photographers: none of your micro rubbish. Applications from the eager hordes of RF photographers apparently queuing for membership would be carefully vetted to ensure the artistic gene pool would not be polluted.

Of course it was entirely predictable – indeed was predicted by some – that such a position was unsustainable. Apart from the morality of deciding which RF applicants qualified for membership and which didn’t there might even be legal ramifications.

On what basis would the SAA face control decide the status of, for example, Lise Gagne? For those who don’t know her, Lise is “the world’s first crowdsourcing photography star”. As one of the most successful iStock photographers she’s one of their poster children. That same token makes her a figure of such extreme dislike within the SAA that it’s been claimed that she may have been secretly funded and promoted, even that she doesn’t actually exist, but is merely an iStock marketing fiction.

But on her own terms – possibly anyone’s terms – she is apparently more successful than many of the SAA artistes. So on what basis would the new SAA refuse her membership should she care to join?

Diamonds aren’t forever

What wasn’t predicted was how quickly the SAA’s control fantasy would unravel. The bombshell that blew their strategy apart was Getty’s announcement that the agency would begin offering iStock’s so-called Diamond contributors full-blown contracts. At a stroke the only difference between a traditional Getty RF shooter and a Getty microshooter was in the artistes’ fevered imaginations.

The full ramifications have yet to sink in at the SAA, but the effects of the development are already being seen. Suddenly all the talk is of community sites, networking and how the SAA can open up to the rest of the world that has passed it by.

And so slowly, quietly, the artistes have been extending the hand of friendship in the microforums: a word of advice here, a little chiding there. The effect is a little like watching Grandpa get down on the dance floor at your sister’s wedding. He knows he needs to be there, but he can’t quite get his moves right: it’s funny at first, but you end up cringing with embarrassment.

For not surprisingly Gramps isn’t entirely welcome at the microshoot hop. Here’s one microshooter’s response to the proffered hand: “If your talent was a tenth the size of your ego you would have nothing to worry about. Go and get your megabucks per picture – we poor amateurs are no danger to your millionaire earnings.”

A year is a short time in the stock business

People like to hang out with the winners. It’s only human nature: everyone hopes some of the gloss will rub off on them. In their own narrow context the iStockers look and feel like winners. In fact, no matter what one thinks of the microstock phenomenon, even from the outside they look like winners.

Less than a year ago they were derided as “laughingstock” within the SAA, an organisation where people have been known to beg for advice on how to get a Getty contract: now the iStockers are being offered that contract.

In contrast, the SAA look like losers. Grumpy at the world in general, the photography business especially, and in particular at the very organisation that makes the iStockers look like winners, but which the losers have neither the power to influence nor the courage to leave. So will the iStockers and other RF photographers be beating down the SAA door for membership? Fat chance.

Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse Lewis Blackwell, Getty Images Group Creative Director, was given full rein in last week’s British Journal of Photography. In what is probably the clearest public declaration of Getty’s direction since Mark Getty’s now- famous “intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century” observation, Blackwell wrote: “Once upon a time there were no photographers; one day in the future there may well be none as we know the discipline today.”

Blackwell’s thoughts have already been dismissed at the SAA as self-serving, and worse. They may well be: but that doesn’t automatically make him wrong. Seven years ago the few photographers who noticed Mark Getty’s Economist interview were equally dismissive. Now, with hindsight, who turned out to be right?

Serious organisations spend years and small fortunes creating and promoting their unique selling point, or USP. Before the recent RF debacle the SAA had their USP: the only organisation dedicated to representing the interests of RM stock photographers. Granted, this wasn’t especially fashionable or cutting edge: RM has been around for as long as photography itself, longer if you want to count the other arts.

On the other hand that makes it a proven model, and there’s an old saying: “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Having tossed away the one thing that made them unique the SAA have been left floundering around in uncharted waters seeking new friends in areas where it’s already clear they are less than welcome. Meanwhile, as subscription renewal time looms we can expect an exodus of their previous core membership: RM stock photographers.

Given all of that and Lewis Blackwell’s statement of intent it’s clear that the SAA’s RF vote was neither visionary nor an exercise in democracy: it was a suicide pact.

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