Social Media opened our eyes to the reality that there is a massive talent pool of photographers that have not chosen the path of going pros. They enjoy taking and sharing photos just for the pleasure while they go on paying for their lives with other, probably more lucrative, occupations.
Nevertheless, the technology world doesn’t see it that way. More and more, options are appearing, allowing social media images an opportunity to be monetized, whether they like it or not. In the last 3 years we have seen the rise of what could be called the “new photo agencies”, companies who are building their business on the licensing of those “not really for sale” images. While traditional photo agencies solicit and manage images from pro or semi pro photographers seeking to generate comfortable revenue with their images, these new agencies hardly solicit anything. Rather, they build a commercial offer of images by collecting photos that were originally mostly posted for sharing.
Let’s take Flickr as it is the granddaddy of them all. Flickr is the original image sharing platform. When pro image buyers, editorial and commercial, started to poach images from the service, Flickr turned to photo licensing giant Getty Images to help them manage the flow of demand. Maybe not the best decision, but perfectly in line with Flickr’s policy to be just a photo sharing platform for enthusiasts and nothing else. Nevertheless, the can was opened. People realized that there was a demand, a paying demand nonetheless, for those images and using different approaches, started building businesses.
The community builders
The community builders are companies that first build a sizable amount of content by functioning as a photo sharing platform to later license those images. From 500px to EyeEm, and countless smaller ones still in the formation stages, these companies present the licensing of images as an additional service to their community while it is most likely an effort to make their companies profitable. It is not their official primary business model, but more and more, it is becoming an important and indispensable part to their growth.
Other tech companies don’t even build a community. Instead, they use existing ones, like Instagram or Twitter, to draw images they then license to others. Companies like Chute or Olapic, for example, offer brands the possibility to find images of their products on social media for usage on their website. While they charge for their services, no license fee is transferred to the photographers. The Scrappers have the advantage of not having to host massive amounts of images as well as not having to ever deal with photographers. Their relationship is limited to other services api and eventual fees. While they have no control over what content is produced, they have formidable curating tools that allow them to quickly and accurately home in on the right images.
As technology gets more powerful and efficient, it is not long before a company will use the whole internet , not just Instagram or Twitter, to scout for images and deliver them to the right users. It is just a question of time.
The On Demanders
And then, there is the rise of the on demand market, companies like Foap or Scoopshot, who create a database of demand from buyers and call for matching submission to a broad network of photographers which we have previously written about. They have the advantage of being able to start licensing images from day one without the need to create large image databases. They also can quickly fully automate their model and can keep their relationships with photographer to a simple customer service level. While they closely mimic the community builders in their culture, the real community they want to build is made solely of image buyers.
Currently, the most successful model, but yet to be proven profitable. These are the massive sharing platform like Instagram, Pinterest or Flickr. They gladly take image submission, host, organize and display them – like any photo agency would do- but they do not license images nor do they intend to. Instead, they monetize their content by taking advantage of the huge traffic they generate. They are half photo agencies, half publishers: photo agencies in the way they collect and manage images, publishers in how they monetize their content . They are extremely protective of their users as those are the core of their businesses, both as contributors and viewers.
Inexperience as a skill
What they all have in common is that none have any previous experience in the photo licensing world. These companies are all built by tech savvy entrepreneurs that have seen a huge opening in the way photographs can be monetized. This lack of experience brings a culture of reckless innocence as well as disruptive opportunities that could change the way we license images in the near future. Not only the content is very different from legacy photo agencies who tend to replicate successes of days past, but the pricing as well as availability are becoming vastly different. The companies in the direct licensing space tend to mimic the Microstock model – low pricing/large amount of sales – in an effort to quickly capture market share. Since most are privately funded with millions, they can sustain long periods of unprofitability while they continue to grow, something traditional photo agencies cannot compete with. Finally, these new photo agencies have no restriction on how they intend to monetize their content, sometimes accumulating different business models and reaching different markets at the same time. With pressure from their investors, they are not in this market to build a long-lasting profitable business, but rather one that will return a massive exit, either by going public or selling to a large entity (see Instagram). That is also a vastly different perspective than legacy photo agencies.
What we can expect:
First, a dramatic change in how images are sold online. Existing structures and conventions are being battered by an incessant flow of rethinking and testing. One solution is going to succeed. Second, the barriers between pros and casual photographers are going to completely vanish (they already are being erased) because for the first time, all images will be available for licensing in one way or the other. Third, where and how you can legally use images from others will be ubiquitous, largely expanding our current concept of licensing. The winners will be those than can recognize and encompass those changes before someone else does.
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.