There is an unwritten rule in the photo:tech space that says if you are going to monetize the content on an individual basis, you have to compensate the creators. No way around it. After all, it is the way multi hundreds of million dollars companies like Getty or Shutterstock operate as well as a multi billion industry called stock photography.
Tech companies, those created by programmers, developers, or serial entrepreneurs do not like this idea. In a VC-funded economy, where capital comes at a premium and revenue, however small it might be, is the most important currency after traction, sharing any income is highly frowned upon. Why, after all, should you reward anyone besides yourself if you can turn something that used to be free into valuable assets. You built the platform, you created a demand, you operate the marketplace then why should you share anything with those that are uploading images for free ?
The issue is that while start-up operators feel they have done all the work, committed users feel that they have made the platform popular. Both consider they should get all the credits for its success. The truth is somewhere in between. However, when your role, day in and day out, is to find ways to monetize your content, you lose perspective and regard for the individuals behind your exchangeable assets. Mostly because you are dealing with massive volume and not people.
This issue just hit Flickr this week after they extended their canvas offering to all CC-BY and CC-BY-SA “creative common”images on their site without sharing revenue with the owners of the images. Most certainly because building a revenue sharing back-end was more than Yahoo wanted to invest, Flickr stuck to the legal aspect of CC ( Members who license under Creative Commons commercial licenses (CC-BY and CC-BY-SA) are embracing these free licenses and encouraging use of their photos, whether commercially or otherwise) and proceeded to sell photos without sharing the proceeds with their creators. Huge mistake and the backlash is just starting.
Yes Flickr built the platform and yes Flickr created the marketplace at a high cost. Users get to upload , share and store images for free already so what are they complaining about ? But perception is that each individual image remains the property of its owner – whatever rights they have forgone – and that as long as they remain free, pretty much anything is fair game. But if Flickr gets revenue they should share, especially if the invited members from the “Flickr Marketplace” get 51% of the sale.
The Flickr community is very vocal and has a long experience of taking to social media to very loudly voice their concerns. Flickr is owned by Yahoo, a publicly traded company. We know already who will win this conflict.
If Flickr is going to monetize its content via various scheme – which it is apparently starting to do aggressively – it will need to be more thorough in investigating current practices in the photography space and even hire season executives to avoid known pitfalls that are just a waste of time and resources. Sure they, like others, would like to change the landscape and not be yet another stock photo agency. But there are some basic rules of conduct that cannot be disrupted by pure brute force just because building the tools to abide by them are too time consuming.
The solution ? Instead of letting anyone buy a canvas from any CC image, let uploaders opt-in with a define revenue share and sign up process. While this might not yield the best images, it will certainly avoid the painstaking process of building a back-end revenue share platform for every potential image and having to redistribute revenue to thousand of images that will sell once. In other words, drop the long tail for the bestsellers. And move on to a more lucrative business model because after all, selling prints, as Getty or more recently 500px already know, is not a very lucrative market.
Author: Paul Melcher
Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.