Is there a hole at the center of the photography industry? Is the current licensing model sustainable? Or will the open sourcing of microstock continue increasing image supply until there are so many pictures available, photographers can’t give good photos away and can’t earn even from those that sell?
In theory, that nightmare scenario should happen. Shutterstock alone already offers over 5 million royalty-free photos and, according to the company’s CEO Jon Oringer, the number of new submissions each month never drops below six figures. Because old images – sold or otherwise – remain available on stock companies, inventories will continue to grow without limit. As the supply increases faster than demand – the world has always contained more photographers than buyers – prices should keep falling.
In fact, you could argue that this is exactly what microstock has already done. There’s little difference between charging one dollar for a license (and paying the photographer pennies) and giving the images away.
But it’s not just the overall number of images available that photographers have to worry about. After all, it’s hard to see how prices can fall any further. They also need to concern themselves with the growing size of the competition. As supply continues to increase, each photographer’s overall share in that supply decreases, reducing their chances of being the contributor that makes sale. The same amount of money might be flowing through the photography industry but it will be shared among a growing number of photographers, leaving less and less money for each.
That, at least, is the thinking behind NoEquivalent Art, a new photo-selling service launched by Eugene Burtman, a photography enthusiast with a background in economics. The site aims to protect prices — and the income of photographers – by limiting the supply of its commercial and art images to just 200,000 pictures at a time. Only 1,000 photographers will be accepted and they will only be able to offer 200 photos each. You can think of it as OPEC for images.
One Image, One Sale, One Time
By itself, that kind of supply control is not unique. Ecard company, HarmonyWishes, also places strict limits on the number of contributors it accepts and the number of images they can offer. But to make sure that buyers are receiving unique works, NoEquivalent also restricts photographers to just one sale.
Contributors must state that their images have not been sold anywhere, are not available for sale anywhere else and that there are no other copies available. Once a sale has been made, the photo is removed from the site and all other high-resolution copies must be deleted.
“[Photographers] do get to keep low resolution versions of the image, which they may use for administrative purposes such as keep in their portfolio,” Eugene explained. “Photographers do understand that to truly sell a unique image they cannot keep a full resolution copy as that would make the image not unique and devalue it. Removing the full resolution version also protects them from liability in case someone steals the image off their storage media and publishes/resells it.”
The compensation for that single opportunity is the value of the sale. Because each image is unique, its rarity means that the photographer can demand a rare price. NoEquivalent contributors begin in a price band that ranges from $500 to $800, an amount that many stock contributors would be happy to earn over the lifetime of a photo. The photographer receives 40 percent of the sale price.
Good sellers will be free to raise the band but the pricing follows market research with companies and individual stock buyers which found that customers are willing to pay different amounts depending on the image’s end purpose.
“This price strikes a balance between the premium concept of the product and the need to be affordable enough to not be prohibitive of most business needs,” Eugene told us. “Finally, this band fits well into the artistic wall décor industry.”
Giving Up Your Photo Rights
Image are offered in two categories: art and commercial. But they’re also delivered with all image rights short of authorship. Buyers aren’t just free to use an image repeatedly in any way they wish, they’re also free to resell the images they purchase in whole or as part of a product. Eugene reassured us though that the economics don’t really allow for an as-is resale market developing, presumably because if the images could sell for more money, they’d sell for more money on the site.
The company plans to open for sales in early 2009 but has been recruiting photographers since November and picked up the first twenty of its 1,000 contributors within its first month.
As for the type of images NoEquivalent wants to sell, the emphasis, not surprisingly, is on uniqueness.
“The simplest way to think of it is by asking oneself the following question: ‘Is my image either capturing a unique moment, difficult to replicate, or highly marketable such that someone would want to own it all to themselves?'” says Eugene. “If the answer to any of these questions is yes then you have a NoEquivalent image regardless of whether you sell it through us or not.”
Photographers can find out by applying for NoEquivalent membership here.
What they won’t find out for a while though is whether a model that allows a photo to be sold only once will provide more income than stock models that allow for repeat sales because there are flaws in the argument that underlies NoEquivalent. Even if real inventories do continue to grow, NoEquivalent’s own research shows that buyers are willing to pay varying amounts depending on the use. They can already choose from almost 100 million free CC-licensed images on Flickr but if they want a commercial image, they turn to microstock and for higher end uses, many are still prepared to pay for traditional stock.
More importantly, stock inventories might grow limitlessly but the patience to search is very limited. Unsold photos are soon buried and old photos soon go out of fashion. Photographers happy with their stock income quickly find their revenues dry up if they stop contributing new photos.
There may be a hole at the center of the photography industry but it’s more likely to be the idea of endless, effort-free photography sales.