Now I'm not a photographer but I do know, and work with, quite a few of them. A couple of weeks ago they seemed happy and well-adjusted, as content as any bunch of creative sole-traders. But last week something happened that changed all that and I suddenly started receiving lots of off-loading emails full of rage and hate. Getty Images had started giving away photographers' stock photos for free.
I scratched my head a bit at this news. What do you mean, free? Not free-no-cost-zip-zero-free surely? Yes, I was assured. Absolutely buckshee. I did some research and yes, they were right. Getty Images is now giving away almost every single image on its stock library for free for online editorial use. This has been spun as a victory for bloggers, who can put them on their website for free. But what interested me - and rather shocked me actually - was that 'editorial use' means newspapers and magazines too. Now I'm no expert but I do know that online editions of all the papers, and indeed the Huffington Post, do use a vast number of stock images - everything from lifestyle and reportage to finance concepts. You only need to look at the credit lines under every photo to know that.
So what are Getty Images up to? It became clear pretty quickly: Data. The photographer and data expert Peter Krogh probably explains this move in the clearest way here.
If it's free, you are the product
As a short-term strategy, giving stuff away for free is a good idea in business. But that really only includes stuff like cups of coffee or meerkat toys. It doesn't stretch to giving away high-value, exclusive items like the stock images that Getty licence on behalf of individual photographers. And giving them away for an unlimited time period, well that's just nuts. As a friend of mine pointed out, by giving something away for free you're saying it's worthless. And the images on the Getty website are clearly not worthless. So to take such a massively risky step Getty must think the data makes up for the loss of brand value. But does it?
As we all know, the thing about free stuff is that it's never really free. If you're getting something free then you are the product and that is particularly true in this case. In the long term, Getty hope to learn all about the behaviours of newspapers readers and bloggers through the code embedded in each image you download. Again, as we all know, this kind of behaviour data is incredibly valuable. Some companies, like Facebook, have built their entire business on it. But is it ethical? 'Ethical' I hear you cry! You're a businessman, stuff ethics! Ah, but I'm moral and ethical enough to know that if you pee on people too many times your business suffers.
Getty Images is a classic example of a predatory corporation. Just because it deals in creative arts doesn't mean it's all fluffy, cute and harmless. It's a shark and has been for a number of years now. Getty has swallowed many smaller stock photo agencies whole. It has bought out rather than tried to compete. If it sees anything that looks like a threat...well, in true 21st Century style...it buys it! Or, if that fails, savagely undercuts it. It is teetering on the edge of a monopoly. Yes there are thousands of other stock photo agencies out there but their ability to compete with a behemoth like Getty is very limited. Which leads nicely to the other side effect for Getty - it means that if the newspapers do take up the offer of free online images then it effectively kills the secondary editorial stock photo market dead for all the others. Possibly killing off even some of the other larger agencies in the process.
PR and fair trade photography
So how do the other stock agencies respond? Well if I was them I certainly wouldn't stay silent. This is a PR open goal! It's such an amazing opportunity that it could catapult businesses ahead of Getty, even in the short term. For other agencies it's also crisis management 101. There is a massive threat here so you'd better respond, clearly and quickly.
Getty Images is now populated by a huge bunch of incredibly pissed off creatives. These photographers are currently trying to find ways to exit Getty and are looking for other outlets for their work - if only for their new photos. And this is a big problem for Getty.
When Getty made their images free for editorial use they forgot one important thing: the photographers are the asset, not the images. The photographers are the ones who will continue to produce the products that Getty sells. And Getty keeps either 70% or 80% of that sale price. If there are no new high-quality products then Getty's customers will go somewhere else. And 80% of nothing is, as we all learned at school, sweet FA. It will only take one other stock agency to put out a statement saying: Look, we're not going to give your work away for free. We value you and your images. We understand what it takes to be a stock photographer. Come to us - we'll respect you. Then it's game over for Getty in the long term.
In this day and age when fair trade has become part of our everyday lives, it seems strange that a big global corporation can treat individual producers around the world so badly and no one seems to care. I hope that one of the other agencies will make a statement; will offer photographers a lifeline, welcome them into their fold - if only to put a stop to the raging emails at my end!