Money for nothing

October 31, 2009

buy it

Some of my photographs have been on sale at Getty Images for a few months now. The other day I received my first royalty cheque. Like Facebook, I finally have a revenue stream, if not a profit margin.

I’m not about to give up the day jobs. Putting most of my pictures online for free, then selling a few of them isn’t really a business model. As Will suggests here and here, it’s hard to see how you can sustain yourself purely through creative / artistic activity. In the case of photography, cheap digital hardware has democratised picture taking, but also flooded the market with images. Sites like Flickr function as a kind of Long Tail art gallery – nothing in the vaults, everything on the walls. And IP is all over the place.

I use a Creative Commons license for most of my pictures, largely because I want to encourage people to use them (with credit) rather than just steal them. So far it’s worked out quite well. Various shots have appeared on sites like Londonist, and on random photo blogs, bringing people back to my Flickr pages. That bumps up my stats and my place in the Flickr universe, which makes me more visible when people like Getty come calling.

As I said, I couldn’t live off this. But most creative people don’t survive purely on their creative work. For example, as part of this report for NESTA, I interviewed various fashion designers, all of whom had a portfolio of fashion-related activity – modelling, consulting, organising shows, lecturing, even some sewing – as well as designing their own collections. The pro-am economy argument has always felt a bit specious: looking back at the history of music, for example, ‘amateur practitioners’ have always been the norm. And the chance to move from ‘am’ to ‘pro’ is going to stay vanishingly small.

For bigger companies the challenges are different. As Matt Mason suggests in The Pirate’s Dilemma, the toughest issue is IP. He suggests companies find ways to embrace ‘pirates’ – by which he means both actual copyright breakers, and people doing radical innovation in the same marketplace. Getty has done this quite neatly. A company selling pictures at a premium is faced with a universe of free or cheaper online content, some of it done by professional photographers. Rather than trying to close down the internet, it imports some of the free content, exploiting its brand power and creating a (fairly) exclusive members’ club [group link]. Those 60,000-odd images then get sold through one of Getty’s existing royalty regimes, giving them a fat 80% of the selling price. Trebles all round!

2 Responses to “Money for nothing”

  1. Mat Says:

    Spot on about Getty. They’re smartly using ‘web 2.0’ by maintaining their traditional role as a commercial photography agency (hence the profit margin) but where previously, ‘good’ photographers/photographs never had the exposure (yes, pun) they’ve mined it. I suspect they wanted in on Flickr as soon as it featured photography they could use. It has changed things financially for Getty, presumably. In the past they would probably accept portfolio viewings in the post, and scout for photographers, all at a cost to them. Now they maintain and browse a Flickr group, like the rest of us, but without the large overheads…?

  2. max Says:

    Right. There’s also YouTube Direct (, which does something similar with news footage. The corporate partners here include NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Washington Post – a radio station, a blog and two papers, an interesting mix in itself. I guess the key difference here is rather than making money, the partners save on costs. Although I guess YouTube might get a cut somewhere.

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