How Much Is an Image Worth? Rethinking Licensing in the Online Age


In an era where images are so omnipresent they sometimes appear to be on the verge of replacing complete sentences, the laws of supply and demand are exerting their inevitable downward pull. The first big slide occurred in the early 2000s when newly created agencies like iStockphoto and Shutterstock sought to profit from the surging supply of images facilitated by digital technology. They aimed to reach beyond a narrow group of relatively high paying professional picture buyers to the legions of independent designers and dabblers who perhaps needed imagery but couldn’t afford (or were no longer willing) to pay top dollar for it.

Dubbed micropayment sites, these agencies recognized that by using online distribution and drastically slashing image licenses (to a fraction of what they had been), they could expand the market for photography — a move that benefited the owners of those companies a lot more than it did the creators of the images they distributed, many of whom earn just a few cents from each sale.

Elsewhere on the Internet images were increasingly being exchanged for free. The emergence of global social media networks like Facebook (founded in 2004) and Twitter (founded in 2006) prompted people to post and share pictures in ways and volumes that had never been imagined. Those platforms fed a culture that increasingly viewed intellectual property, in all its shapes and forms, as something that should be either extremely cheap (micropayments) or free.

While the technology and the market have changed, the way in which we calculate image licenses has progressed too slowly. To do nothing, risks seeing picture licenses eroded to oblivion.
While the technology and the market have changed, the way in which we calculate image licenses has progressed too slowly. To do nothing, risks seeing picture licenses eroded to oblivion. | LightRocket
This online model, based on exchanging services for personal data (Facebook) or “micropayments” for creative products (iStockphoto and iTunes for example) has proved wildly popular. It has also made it difficult for artists to earn a living from their creations.

Meanwhile, with so many people connected to the Internet “publishing” and distribution has become universally accessible, spawning a culture of crowd sourcing which is increasingly feeding professional media outlets.

Every news event is now recorded not just by professional photographers and journalists but by an army of amateur bystanders who have the ability to share their “creations” almost instantaneously — and for free. Bastion of journalism the BBC already regularly makes use of crowd sourced journalism — or user generated content (UGC) to use the technical jargon.

To glimpse the scale of this revolution, Facebook announced in January that 240 billion pictures had been uploaded by its 1 billion users. Other estimates indicate more than 200 million pictures are posted to Facebook daily.

The numbers are simply mind boggling.

While there remains a real difference between the value of pictures informally shared through social networks and those published by professional media outlets, that difference in value is not always recognized. So while one can hardly expect to be remunerated for publishing an image on Facebook, it is slightly worrying that unpaid crowd sourced imagery is also appearing in the mainstream media who generate revenue from the content they provide. With so much free imagery available, the temptation is often too strong for editors to resist. After all, why pay for something you can get for free.

What does this mean for professional photographers seeking to earn a living from their images?

On the face of it, the news isn’t good. If the market for imagery has expanded bringing in new groups of buyers, barriers to entry have also fallen turning many amateurs into suppliers of imagery for professional uses. This makes it harder for the professionals to distinguish themselves from the amateurs.

As the market has become swamped and as the skills and equipment required to take pictures have become almost universal, the perceived value of photography has also fallen. I use the word “perceived” here because where economic forces are at work perception is an important factor.

In absolute terms, however, the value of great photography has not been eroded — because it can’t be. A great image has as much power to move and inspire today as it ever had. Yet in an environment where images occasionally become a substitute for language and in a market flooded with pictures, the viewers of such imagery are perhaps overwhelmed, numbed even.

If the technology for creating and distributing photographic images has transformed the marketplace, the tools for measuring the value of an image seem stuck in a time warp; a situation that may suit buyers but is surely to the detriment of photographers.
Thus as publishing moves definitively away from physical media (paper) into the virtual context of the Internet and other electronic formats, it is time to rethink the way in which we calculate image usage rates.

The current paradigm relies on calculating rates based on a matrix of factors including the relative size of an image on the printed page, the position of the picture (inside or cover), the print run of the publication, the geographical distribution area and related languages. Yet with an ever increasing number of eyeballs on screens and not paper, and with so much value being derived from advertising online the predominantly paper based approach to calculating rates seems out of synch with the realities and trends in media today.

Of course online usage is usually remunerated but it almost always tends to be treated as an add on. If a magazine buys a license to use your work in their print edition they might, or might not, pay a little extra for using the same picture online, even though the online usage might double (or more) the number of people seeing your image. Given the way things are going, I’m starting to wonder if it shouldn’t be the other way round. The principle value calculation should be based on electronic and online usage and the print usage should be the add on.

Perhaps we can envisage an entirely new and entirely more sophisticated way of controlling and paying for usage online. If the principle measure of an image’s value online is the number of people who see it, might we not find a means of setting a rate per view for an image?

Could we embed a counter inside a digital file? The photographer could then set a per view rate for an image and a client could perhaps pre-purchase a certain number of views. The more views — think TIME magazine or the New York Times — the more the client would pay up front. The image could be set to delete, for example, if the usage exceeded a certain agreed number of views without payment.

These are just a few ideas and any major transformation in how we calculate rates, especially if it involves a technological component (which I think it should) will require some serious development. My point is that while the technology and the market have changed, the way in which we calculate image licenses has progressed too slowly.

As photographers it is in our interests to find an effective way to calculate and charge for the value of our images in an online context. The new approach should leverage the vast reach of the Internet, creating revenue opportunities for photographers from usages on sites with both small and large audiences.

Electronic usage is no longer an add-on, it will surely be the principle media of the future. It is time for the world of photography, collectively if we can, to try and rethink how we value and charge for our work in the Internet age. To do nothing, risks seeing picture licenses eroded to oblivion.

(This article appeared first on LightRocket. Yvan Cohen is director and co-founder of the new online website, media management and hosting service for photographers.)