Linda Johannessen, CEO of microstock site YAY Micro, believes that microstock photographers are getting a rough deal — and should do something about it. As long as photographers are willing to accept low commissions, she argues, the large players in the microstock market will be free to increase their earnings at the expense of their contributors. The solution, she told us, is for photographers around the world to club together and fight for a fairer share of the profits.
“The marketing channel in microstock leaves the photographers powerless, except for the largest contributors. It’s an unfortunate situation, and I think the only way to combat this is for microstock photographers to join together in a global union.”
It’s a call that might sound self-defeating coming from the chief executive and part-owner of a microstock site, but YAY Micro has gone some way towards creating a fairer system for both sellers and buyers.
The site was formed in 2008 by three former employees of Scandinavian image agency Scanpix. The company had tasked Johannessen, together with colleagues Jan Ole Kjellesvig and Roger Bystrøm, to investigate the potential for expanding into microstock. Scanpix, which specializes in editorial imagery, eventually decided not to open its own microstock site, but the team members were so convinced of the sector’s potential that they decided to leave their jobs and create their own service — even before they had any funding in place.
Since then, Oddbjørn Sjøgren has replaced Bystrøm as CTO and partner, and the site has built a collection of 1.6 million images contributed by some 4,795 photographers. Yuri Arcurs is there as are professional contributors MonkeyBusiness and ImageSource.
A Flat 50 Percent Royalty to Everyone
Asked what makes YAY Micro unique in a market filled with dozens of similar services, and Johannessen compares her site’s contribution to Apple’s move into music players.
“I like to point out that most companies don’t have anything unique. What matters is to do everything better than your competitors, and to create a greater value for your users,” she says. “Apple makes PCs and mp3-players but the brand, the product experience and the design makes them stand out.”
That all sounds a little vague and YAY Micro is still far from sharing Apple’s brand awareness but a couple of standout features do suggest that the site is bringing something new to microstock: a sense of fair play. For sellers that means an equal share of the sales price. Instead of sliding scales dependent on sales volume that, on iStockPhoto, top out at 20 percent for non-exclusive images and 45 percent for exclusive contributors, Yay Micro pays out a flat 50 percent to everyone.
That may change if YAY Micro introduces exclusivity incentives (in which case the company may alter the commission, take a price premium on exclusive images or do both) but for now all sales are split evenly with contributors regardless of how many images they’ve sold or the number of sites they contribute to.
“At YAY we feel it’s only fair to share 50/50 with our photographers,” explains Johannessen. “We aim to treat our photographers fairly, with openness and respect, and we would welcome any stakeholder groups representing photographers. In the long run, photographers will be best off by supporting the agencies with fair commissions.”
Nor is it just the sellers who are getting a fair deal. Although bulk discounts are available (the most popular package appears to be 100 high-res images for $349) buyers who need just a single photo for a Web page aren’t required to buy a minimum number of credits, most of which they don’t need. A 3 megapixel photo might be relatively expensive at $7, but for buyers it’s cheaper than paying $9.75 for six iStockPhoto credits, half of which will eventually expire.
Even the Software is Community-Based
The site’s emphasis on the community even extends as far as the technology that runs it. YAY Micro was built entirely using open source software. The operating system is the Linux-based CentOS. For the database management system, the site chose PostgresSQL rather than MySQL now owned by Oracle, and search is powered by Apache Solr.
Cost was one factor in the choice to use open source systems but the site’s founders were also drawn to the thinking behind the software.
“YAY is built on a community philosophy when it comes to both structure and content,” says Johannessen. “Our experience is that the open source communities attend to problems and provide excellent support.”
Yay Micro isn’t the first company to attempt to bring a fairer balance to a stock industry dominated by major players with the power to dictate terms. PhotographersDirect takes only a 20 percent cut and allows the photographers themselves to set prices. It also refuses entry to people who contribute to microstock sites on the grounds that they’re helping to damage the earning potential of other photographers.
And the photography world isn’t short of organizations that aim to represent contributors. The Stock Artists Alliance exists “to support and protect the business interests of professional stock photographers worldwide… and advocates the use of equitable business models, fair contracts and ethical practices at all levels of the stock industry.” That hasn’t stopped the rise of microstock sites owned by big stock companies with tiny payouts, tight exclusivity contracts and low prices.
But even if an international union of microstock photographers is unlikely to put fear into the heart of Getty, Johannessen’s market-based approach might just have an effect. The microstock world is both new and fluid. A site that’s willing to split revenues equally with contributors could well attract more photographers and more images, and in turn, more buyers. It could put upward pressure on a market that’s long failed to live up to the promise to buyers of usable images for 99 cents. Microstock photographers of the world don’t have to unite so much as choose to upload their images where the returns are highest — and wait for the rest of the industry to join Yay Micro.