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Embedding Images: The Promise of Proliferation, The Tension of Control

The practice of allowing visual media to be embedded on an external site by an anonymous user has seen widespread adoption (thanks, YouTube), so that any site in the business of publishing content uses it. By allowing readers to share the video/photo itself, and not a page link, it incentives use and reuse by offering bespoke contextualization of the object. Moreover, it gives the source publisher the ability to generate outbound links and traffic data in a more meaningful way. With the adoption of embedding by lay online publishers commonplace, many photo startups and incumbents within photo tech and licensing have exclusively focused on embedding (like IMGembed) or integrated it as another solution for their clients (like Yay Images’ “streaming” service and Getty’s embed program). While there’s clear demand, there’s ambiguity over how best to monetize using an embedded feature: per-impression fee, subscription, in-image advertising, data mining? Interestingly, photo-tech seems much more interested in plotting new paths than its retail-focused counterparts.

Houzz, the Pinterest-inspired home-décor community, recently secured $165MM in new funding. The start-up doesn’t hide photo sharing as being critical to its success – it’s right there in the global nav, immediately next to their logo: “PHOTOS”. Their embedding feature on every image (over 4.2MM) serves a clear purpose: to link back to Houzz.com. Embedding images from Houzz is simple and requires no registration. Embeddable codes are served up with every photo; Houzz delivers the image from its server, with a link back to the page on Houzz where the photo is published. There’s no credit line on source from Houzz on embedded images (and, once embedded on another site, you can easily save the photo/orphan).

Given their reliance upon photos for their business model, one might expect a bit more intelligence for how embedding is leveraged beyond just an anonymous share out and link back strategy. Houzz could employ a metadata strategy that better promotes both the content of the photo and its source (look to the Getty/Pinterest partnership), thus strengthening their brand and connectivity with users on the supply side as well as the user side. Also, utilizing visual recognition technology could create a more powerful selling platform, and allow Houzz to use the photo as a distributed point of sale among its retailers and partners. Embedding, when viewed as a vehicle for a more robust and deep engagement, can take on added dimensions.

Perhaps the most interesting use of embedding technology for photos – at least for those who aggregate and license – is in NewsCred’s recent launch of their Image Editor. NewsCred is in the business of creating and licensing content for content marketing purposes, and images are in all if not most of the content they license and distribute to other companies. Their platform tracks use and provides analytics, but their core service is as an aggregator and licensor of content. While NewsCred has for a while had multiple sources for visual content, it emphasizes as part of its marketing for the Image Editor access to “12.6 million stock images from Getty Images and our new partner Shutterstock as well as 28.1 million editorial images”. Clearly, putting it in the hands of the user is a lean toward customization of their service, but it’s also another pivot away from managing downloads on desktops. As part of a contained experience in using photos in content marketing, it benefits from use analytics which NewCred’s suppliers, NewsCred, and its end users can utilize.

If the practice of embedding is as much about control as it is ease of proliferation, the creation of “content on a string” by NewsCred and other content creation/management companies (as opposed to pure aggregators like Houzz and Pinterest) leans heavily on the control premise. Of course, the big differentiator lies within rights: aggregators who open themselves up to crowd sourcing have real limitations on how they can interact with that content. Pinterest drew the ire of the photo licensing industry after its launch by virtue of its inability to support accurate rights holder information, or even proper links, and was viewed as a massive orphan work generator (it has since made product improvements that address this). Where UGC imposes barriers for photo tech and aggregators, photo licensing companies like Getty hold the advantage with a vetted inventory. Still, the strategy is one of proliferation and not one of containment – but shouldn’t it be both? Embedding can provide clear value to the user (hassle-free access, customization) and to the rights-holder/publisher (tracking, analytics, sharing). Building those channels of use, through proliferation, is of high value. How that network is exploited becomes the central question to monetization.

Oh, What A Difference (Or Not?) 5 Years Makes

Stock image consultancy firm Visual Steam recently published a summary of their 2014 survey of US art buyers in stock image licensing. It outlines some of the major trend lines from the previous year (continued pricing pressure, use migrating to online and away from print), and provides insight into buyer habits across sourcing, pricing models used most, and “top of mind” destinations for sourcing images (it’s still Getty’s game, but Shutterstock continues to nip away).

Comparing trends between this year and last might reveal glacial-type movements among art buyers, who largely have not changed their habits over 12 months. What about 5 years? The publication Graphic Design USA, for many years, has been publishing its own stock visual survey (itself sponsored by a commercial stock licensor). Have 5 years of buyer habits changed all that much, and what do their habits reveal about trend lines and the stock industry’s response? Similarities between GD USA’s 2009 survey and Visual Steam’s 2014 are close enough for comparison.

Motion

The use of motion has increased greatly over 5 years, according to those polled. In 2009 the amount of buyers licensing motion was 35% — today it is 73%. The amount of producers and licensors of motion have not commensurately increased within the stock industry, so where is increased demand met? Is inventory finally being exploited across Getty, Pond5 and others, or has the increase in use been met through assignment?

General Use

41% of buyers polled in 2009 said they use stock more than in the previous year. 60% of buyers polled in 2014 said they expected to increase their use in the coming year. While this comparison is reality vs. forecast, it does not at a general volume increase year over year, which should be aligned with ad growth. However, sales volumes do not equal revenue volumes. To further illustrate the eclipse of digital over print, almost all of those surveyed in 2009 used stock for print campaigns, and today it’s roughly half.

Spending

To which pricing and licensing models does the money go? RF licensing still sees the lions share, which is little surprise. RF saw over half (54%) of what was spent in 2009, while 2014 increased to 59% over RM. What was not tracked in 2009, but relevant today, is Free use – 13% accounted for total licenses acquired in Visual Steam’s survey, making the rise of direct to photographer sourcing by buyers a powerful theme. Certainly, Flickr, Creative Commons, Google Images, and outside distribution and sharing has accelerated this trend. Spending little, if anything, is still a major driver in content sourcing: only 23% said that quality trumps price every time.

Sourcing

Perhaps a trivial difference, while most all sourced their imagery online in 2009 quite a few were reliant upon print catalogs and CDs. While GD USA’s poll doesn’t give us buyer preferences around where they source, Visual Steam’s does, and Getty is still top of mind among stock licensors. Getty and iStock accounted for well over half of those who were asked of an immediate “go-to”, with Shutterstock not far behind. Corbis and Veer are very much considered tier 3. These findings certainly reflect market share capture. A distant, yet powerful, source was Google Images, but what remains opaque is whether this a front door to industry licensors who benefit from tagging and ads or a method for sourcing outside of stock licensing (and what is the differential?).

Buyers seem to have grown accustomed to subscription and trolling micro sites for cheap RF in the past 5 years, since questions in 2009 (“have you used a micropayment site?” and “have you used a subscription service?”) seem as antiquated as print catalogs and CDs. No doubt, with the move by iStock to go up market with its Vetta collection (and with Shutterstock mimicking the same in its recent Offset), buyers are challenged to break old prejudices even if in practice it was a shell game of content by the licensors.

Will we see the same prejudices – this time with user-generated content – be defeated in 5 years time? UGC was raised as a question in 2009, and over 1/3 of respondents said they’d used UGC at some point in a campaign. Oddly, Visual Steam’s survey did not cover UGC. On the tip of the tongue in 2009, today it remains as fragmented and immature a market as ever, with many startups and incumbents seeking traction and market acceptance as iStock did. What most photo tech companies who venture into monetizing UGC for the stock buying community consistently fail to grasp is that quality still is paramount (quality implying provenance – or assurance of rights), and that a simple exercise in aggregation does not account for the convoluted landscape built on the preferences and practices of a fickle market. Is 5 years really that long a time to solve the problem?

3 Major Reasons Photo Tech Needs to be Concerned About Rights

The recent explosion of startups devoted to monetizing photography have revealed certain diversity of approach within the photo tech ecosystem, where business models are targeted largely on accelerated aggregation of imagery and either monetization of the audience (data, app charge, etc.) or of the images themselves (advertising, print on demand, licensing/use). Many, like Chute, provide tools for the aggregation of UGC to supplement their campaigns, while others, like 500px, focus on fine art enthusiasts and provide enhanced portfolio tools in a community setting. The variance unfurls like Instagram’s API subscribers: everything from consumer apps to B2B web solutions.

Most all share the view that online images are an untapped resource. In-image advertisers, like Znaptag, seek to push through ads on publisher sites (a similar tagging experience recently departed Stipple helped pioneer). The in-image ad market is heavily populated by incumbents from the ad industry – not photo tech – so often, like other photo tech startups, less emphasis is placed on image inventory and provenance thereof. It’s a volume game, and when the pipes are open wide – and where little regulation occurs – you can expect some trade-off around quality.

By quality, we don’t imply artistic integrity, technical attributes or commercial viability, but the rights associated with an image – the verification of source and the rights granted to an end user. There are many inferior images that reside with image licensing incumbents, just as there are many superior images being aggregated by photo tech startups. It’s how images are sourced, the process, that the industry needs to be vigilant over.

Platform does not equal inventory

The incumbents in photo licensing have the edge in inventory. Existing licensors like Shutterstock, Getty, and others have long placed barriers to entry that reduced-to-eliminated risk for their clients. It was a baked-in process that translated to client attraction and retention, and is still a critical cornerstone of their ability to productize their inventory. While photo tech platforms obsess (and stakeholders watch just as obsessively) over what rights are transferred by each user to them, very few actively qualify each image that is submitted to them.

For many, it’s an impossible task. They exist within the DMCA’s safe harbor provision, and cannot actively be aware of the types of images being submitted to them. With the foundation set, they’re reliant upon opt-in measures (500px, EyeEm, and now Flickr) to build inventory. While this might achieve some success, it is still a decentralized program apart from the main proposition of the platform. Few can create the foundation that a Shutterstock has, which focuses solely on aggregation and distribution for specific audiences. The initial proposition is key – once deviated from, noise level rises and mixed messages ensue.

Infringement claims are rising

Getty’s infringement business is big, and viewed by many pundits as “free” money. Sure, it doesn’t scale proportionately to inventory nor does it scale nicely against admin costs, but it’s growing and others are noticing and coming to the table. Claims aren’t only drawing solutions-minded intermediaries who promise to do the dirty work – this is also a photographer-driven incentive, and those who’ve been infringed upon demand retribution.

Adding to this trend is attention by the government to help copyright claims, which have long been out of reach by individuals due to court allocation and claim processes. Once the doors open up and help facilitate the claims process for infringing use, you can bet even more growth within the infringement industry will occur.

UGC is still perceived as the ‘unwashed masses’ by publishers…and it is

Photo tech startups view the world’s mobile captures as potential untapped inventory rife for exploitation, and in many cases it is, but major publishers are still quite wary of directly sourcing from UGC-based startups due to the inherent risks.

Publishers (and advertisers) will still require confirmation of source, or at least an end use license that provides warranties in instance of a claim. Even the incumbents slip up now and then (Morel), but such anomalies aren’t enough to produce a mass exodus of clients. Risk-aversion is still weighted heavily against startups, whose selection process is non-existent, and any automated or crowd-curated aspects to the platform don’t reflect the rigor expected by potential clientele.

 

Of course, photo tech isn’t aligned with rights on an image level. Notorious terms of services, of which Instagram’s was made famous, was created to be a rights grab. Most startups have adopted similar terms of service, as is common within the culture, but many are quite friendly and transparent. The commonality among them all is a decided pivot away from verifying rights of an image and providing assurances to end users, to shifting risk back onto participating parities on either side of their platform. Despite the volumes of images being added online every moment, copyright law still gives recourse to those who seek it.

 

4 Indicators That Outline the Decline of Image Licensing as We Know It

The annual conference CEPIC recently took place in Berlin, where international photo libraries congregate primarily to seek distribution for their images and/or image collections to represent for their clients. The industry they serve is commercial and editorial image licensing, and their clients are advertisers and publishers of all stripes and colors; the fact that publishing has been in contraction for quite some time has displaced many image licensors, but to add insult to injury the advertisers are showing attrition as well.

Typically, CEPIC has been viewed as the single-most important conference for the dissemination of news on mergers and acquisitions, launching of new ventures and products, and the type of intel gathering that can significantly inform one’s business strategy. What was once a critical gathering full of insight is now devoid of such news and intel, but even a room full of people (the most telling no-show: local photo startup EyeEm) going through familiar motions without any real buzz isn’t proof of an industry in decline. We can look to more conclusive evidence of a decline than what didn’t happen at CEPIC.

1. Diversification from the Big Incumbents

Getty, Shutterstock and Corbis are arguably the largest image licensors and oldest stories within the industry. What have they been up to lately? Moving away from transactional licensing models and diversifying their product portfolios and revenue streams. Getty’s core commercial licensing business has it’s challenges, but their infringement recoupment business has seen significant growth, and they’re seeking other monetization models that are built around the use of imagery online (embedding for data culling, sharing image data to Pinterest users, etc.). Shutterstock has taken significant market share away from anyone engaged in commercial image licensing, and while they’ve almost invented the subscription category through its continued improvement in experience to the end user, it’s still a fixed market. Aside from product diversification (Music, Video, How-To Videos), a key acquisition made in WebDAM allows them to move into the CMS area and – overtime – less reliant upon image licensing revenues. Corbis has all but given up on their commercial offering, instead throwing their chips into the new Branded Entertainment Network. Pivoting toward the entertainment industry carries a larger future promise for Corbis, and leverages their equity in rights and clearances.

2. DIY Campaigns

The skills required to execute a powerful image have migrated from a core group of experts (photographers) to virtually anyone, thanks first to digitization from analog processing, then online distribution. Being able to take your own photo for a campaign, product or reliant upon UGC participation to help market brands and products has significantly displaced traditional markets for image licensing from being the sole source (outside of assignment photography) to a last resort. It’s free (relatively) and you don’t have to sweat rights.

3. Distribution of Photography

The core image licensing industry controls around 250 million images (in abstract), many of which are redundantly available across multiple sites and shared and distributed out across the web. This is a tiny amount compared to the 1.8 billion photos uploaded and shared out on social networks per day. Not including Pinterest, which is all about photo distribution, and Google, which is the defacto site for image search, 1.8 billion is still a staggering number that relegates the image industry to outsiders looking in. Most image licensors expect clients to engage with images on their own storefronts, on their terms, but those potential clients have far fewer impediments to acquiring an image elsewhere…and do.

4. Investments Have Migrated

The investment community has put money back into photo businesses, but it’s all banking on models that are monetization of UGC and closer alignment to customers – the vendor role is an obsolete one. Companies that are getting funded and are getting traction have focused on providing request platforms (reinventing and bringing value around the photographer/buyer relationships), photo communities (aggregating first, then engaging the buy side), or analytics and services that are tied to retail and branding. All of them have a fundamental product identity that is not search/license/download, and for most photography is a means and not an end.

 

These trends are not the customary topics of conversation among incumbents, and at CEPIC the conversation revolved around shrinking distribution channels, lower prices, lower volumes, and Google’s latest battles with the EU. This is well-worn fodder, but missing the larger picture. The state of transactional image licensing is one of continued irrelevance — there’s a reason why Shutterstock has gained marketshare, and why new offerings crop up that look nothing like their predecessors. A whole new generation has been educated on what image acquisition means, and its expectations on everything from price, use, and point of access are far afield from the realities of years past. This generation, as well, is defining a reality that is broader in scope than image licensors can envision. The good news for those incumbents that solely engage in transactional licensing is that they’ll have more and more avenues available to them than ever before, and their advantages (niche aggregation, robust data, clearances) can position them to take advantage of the new marketplace, but it won’t be easy.

The Economy of Infringement

Copyright infringement and its recovery takes an enormous toll…and not just in legal fees. The process of identifying copyright infringement, its verification, and the highly iterative aspects of the works’ removal and recovery efforts touches many markets and actors. Infringers themselves can be big and small businesses, non-profits, and individuals, and can encompass anyone who uses online publishing and marketing.

With the scope of infringing activity so wide, and participants so diverse, the economic footprint from its effects is equally as great. Loss of revenues and legal fees are concrete measurements of its impacts, but there are more ambiguous and subtle impacts. When trying to define the scope of impact, and topically assign categories, it quickly goes broad and deep.

Areas of Impact

Business
– Adversarial conduct impactful to business relations/development/growth
– Loss of revenue due to financial impact as plaintiff
– Loss of revenue due to financial impact as defendant
– Technical compliance measures
– Auditing: both internal and external
Personal
– Disruption of familial and personal relationships
– Stress and treatment measures (manifests as healthcare requirements)
– Income loss
Legal
– Attorney fees incurred as plaintiff
– Attorney fees incurred as defendant
Societal
– Tax burden for judicial system in handling cases
– Moral burden in prioritizing Judicial resources against other societal issues
– Devaluation of copyrighted content stifles the appreciation and investment in creative works

 

Many Variables and Little Stats

Attaching numbers to abstracts like societal impacts, let alone narrowing down to specifically photography, is a multi-year study. No collective stats are kept around infringing use, pursuit of claims within court or settlement outside of courts. Likewise, as a somewhat private pursuit, legal firms don’t make available their statistics nor do those businesses impacted (whether public or private) readily share their story. Courts that handle claims have public data, but meaningful aggregation of statistics is not immediately known as courts are local. Not all claims end up in court, and the matter of settling directly by both parties and through arbitration are likely more common — and very difficult to tabulate.

Infringement recovery per US copyright law allows for $750-$30,000 per infringed work, but under willfulness on behalf of the defendant can top out at $150,000. While pursuit can be lucrative, resources are limited for many copyright holders where no guarantees exist. As summarized in his research paper Copyright Infringement Markets by Shyamkrishna Balganesh, University of Pennsylvania, the process of recoupment remains attainable only for those with means…”As of 2011, the average cost of litigating a copyright infringement case through trial, for either plaintiff or defendant—and excluding judgment and awards—was estimated to range from $384,000 to a staggering $2 million. To individual, small business, or non-commercial creators, all of who are intended beneficiaries of copyright, copyright litigation remains an unaffordable proposition.”

Infringement Recovery for the Few

How many cases of infringements are there? DMCA take down requests do not provide any accuracy around the volume of copyright infringements, as take down requests are targeted to specific website owners, as well as ISPs like Google (in 2013, Google received  over 235MM DMCA take down requests to remove offending links from their search — this is a fraction of overall take down requests globally and covers all media types).

Copyright trolls — those devoted to exploiting chapter 5 of the copyright law to its full effect for their well-funded clients — are generally viewed as the co-beneficiaries of the current infringement economy, and exist in a perfect storm of ambiguity within the DMCA and lack of consumer and market knowledge around infringing use. While this works well for large media companies with deep pockets, for everyone else there are limited means and channels for copyright holders to seek recoupment and recovery around infringement.

Hopefully, with renewed interest in addressing this asymmetry, the government can address channels available for copyright infringement recovery and existing resource constraints. However, with the current climate that’s decidedly anti-rights holder, and with copyright constantly thrown under the network neutrality bus, all those invested in the creative economy seeking a measure of control might only have hope.

 

The Value Beyond The Transaction

The traditional image licensing business is a transactional one. Historically, the management of rights was considered to be an ongoing service, but with royalty free models eclipsing rights managed volumes, this is of little to no value for today’s image buyer. All value is wrapped up in the transaction: image rights and metadata are pre-vetted, and those are the most important and critical components to the product. Consumers are buying a license – not an image – and that license makes warranties of accuracy that assuages risk.

Today, there’s little perceived value in the function of an image agency. It’s all about the transaction (and sometimes the organization of inventory). Customers have little loyalty, and it’s of little surprise; the image industry has done little to evolve with the needs of their customers – those exceptions are responsive to price and convenience (e.g., iStockphoto). There are many vendors hawking the same inventory in most markets, and the resultant expectation of the market is akin to vending machine behavior.

Image agencies, in order to secure a future relevancy and add value for their customers, need to diversify. Shutterstocks’ recent acquisition of WebDAM can certainly occupy the category of diversification. The digital asset management company, successful in the enterprise content management space, will allow Shutterstock to drive its core business deeper into the existing corporate market. However, the ECM market is twice the size of the image licensing industry (and will grow over $9B in 2017), so penetration into this market allows for them to sell services across both sectors. With the rise of content marketing and brands as publishers, customer needs – and indeed customers – have converged. Demand for content (including imagery) goes hand in hand with content management demands.

Getty, for nearly a decade, has been selling its own DAM solution (Media Manager) for media-centric companies, but as an early entrant into the ECM market it was modeled on the needs of companies close to Getty – near-in opportunities to sell a new product to existing customers. Developed prior to cloud storage, and repackaging existing technology, it still represented the type of service mentality and alignment with customer needs that is critical in the deployment of successful ECM SaaS solutions.

In the spirit of aligning with the needs of customer, a few other image agencies have been willing to move beyond the transaction into unchartered waters. Yay Images’ most recent subscription service allows customers to edit their images before generating an embed code (and thus hosting the image being used), pivoting toward providing web-based content solutions and away from a strict image vendor. Newly-minted Snapwi.re is focused on creating demand as a request platform, pulling the customer in close on the conversation and empowering them to participate in the creation process.

What about the reverse, where successful services-related businesses ventured into image licensing? Two tales come readily to mind and both share similar paths at the same time: PhotoShelter and Digital Railroad. Both came to market as a photographer portfolio platform, and both took steps toward building a marketplace for their photographers to opt-in and license. Digital Railroad exhibited good growth at the outset of their Marketplace – a big selling point being its unique collection – but other problems doomed the company. Photoshelter, after almost a year in market with their Photoshelter Collection, threw in the towel after not seeing the type of growth they had hoped for.

While service and solution-focused companies seeking to pivot into image licensing struggle in finding traction (in fact, they fail), the incumbents entrenched in image licensing struggle to hold onto their customers and move with them across a changing landscape. Shutterstock’s WebDAM acquisition is a convincing move that reframes the question of what an image agency is, and what it needs to be, but is it also hedging its bets on behalf of its shareholders; is it serious about innovating in the ECM space? Moreover, do others possess the ability, vision and mettle to follow their lead?

The image industry has a lot of knowledge and insight into content management, content distribution and content rights – all of which are highly germane to content marketing and publishing. Many are innovating on the creation and delivery of solutions into this space, but very few are image industry incumbents. If image agencies want to provide value beyond the transaction, they’d be wise to study not only their current customers, but identify their future ones.

Image Licensing Confusion

Google’s new Usage Rights filter is an attempt to help bridge online use of imagery, but they’re missing the most important part of the licensing puzzle: education.

A large portion of online image searches are conducted through Bing and Google’s search engines, by a wide swath of content-seekers from consumers to professional image buyers for major corporations to corporate marketers themselves. Given the broad indexing by the search engines, the expectation on the search side is complete exposure to the world’s imagery (not true) and the startling diversity and breadth of results based on search query (true).

For years, Google came to define the experience of image search, often being the point of entry for even professional image licensors such as Corbis and Getty. Within the search experience, Google did little to prevent anyone from stealing an image, by shunning its role as gate-keeper in exchange for accessibility and expediency of delivery. Meticulous UX design informed users of what they were looking at, and by whom, but did not educate around how to interact with the image – users soon started to conflate the ease and accessibility with the notion of public domain, and deeper misunderstanding of what Fair Use means.

With global photographic and professional trade associations vocalizing their concerns over Google’s role as a conduit for infringing use and generating orphaned works of their property, and with Google recognizing a way to legitimately circumnavigate the image licensing industry, Google implemented the means to filter image search results by rights access. Bing soon followed suit.

Both leaned on leveraging the largest image rights attribution engine available to them: Creative Commons – a copyright straw man for digital media; but the categories of use as defined by Creative Commons, and leveraged by Bing and Google, obfuscate the rights of the user and rights holder more than educate. The categories of use assume an aggregate consumer knowledge of rights and use, which are also wide open to interpretation. Bing uses “share”, “use”, “commercially” with no definition, while Google, extending a stiff arm by prefacing each category with “Labeled”, translates to their own user base. Further, accuracy of labeling/categorizing is highly suspect, as there’s no central authority for warranting ownership with Creative Commons – anyone can assert rights over an image in the digital age.

The implications of Bing and Google as licensing intermediaries does little to promote the ethical use of imagery online. It is a Tower of Babel, with little value and assurances to an end user of an image, disconnecting a rights holder from a user through a language that needs clear comprehension.

Microsoft’s 3-Step Process to Online Theft

Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker and itself a massive consumer of image content for its products and services, has taken the bold step of promoting the theft of images online. Through its newly revamped Office product, Microsoft is replacing an image search functionality – one that routed the user to vetted sources for searching, transacting and integrating content into their online projects – with a general Bing search. While Microsoft is certainly free to remove one piece of Office functionality and push users onto the Bing platform, the methods of how it is doing so underscores a blatant disregard of intellectual property.

On Microsoft’s Office web page Images, it guides an Office user on the acquisition of images for use. Under “Use Bing to get images”, it outlines a three step process:

  1. Open Bing.com (and search for an image)
  2. Hover over your selected item…and Right click
  3. Click Save picture as…in the menu. Save image.

The message is clear: use Bing to download images for whatever intended use you might have. Microsoft does not attempt to educate the user on copyright, use rights or even how unauthorized use of images pulled from the web might expose the user to risks. It would seem that driving Bing traffic at the expense of content owners and generating volumes of orphaned works is far more important to Microsoft than architecting a solution where both parties might benefit from online search and use.

The unauthorized use of images has increased year over year, where it is now assumed that well over 85% of all images used online are done so illegally. Sites like Pinterest routinely expunge image metadata when users pin images, and despite attempts by Getty to monetize their collection by coupling Getty orphaned works with their rightful information, it’s a drop in the bucket considering the hundreds of millions – or billions – of images Pinterest hosts. Google is still the leader in generating orphaned works, and they’ve recently made greater strides in obfuscating information on the rightful owner of an image, while giving easier direct access of any online image from their search to users.

Microsoft, desperate to try and play catch up in the online search market, is brazenly throwing the content industry under the bus in the name of Bing. How it is educating the market on image use and consumption might very well be categorized as reckless, but more so ironic given that Microsoft is a corporation that vehemently defends its own intellectual property with extreme prejudice.

It’s not the lack of viable alternatives that accelerates unauthorized use, but lack of market education and general disinterest on behalf of search engines and social media platforms. What market education there is comes through the wellspring of Creative Commons, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other entities that advocate for free and unfettered access to content, and are intent on rewriting the rules around content ownership and accessibility. Microsoft has joined in the chorus, with a clear full-throated voice.

Watch This Space For The Next iStock

Change agents often come from the outside. Not mired in the near-sightedness of immediate demands and constraints of status quo, new businesses that bring about a new solution to an old problem have the benefit of pure objectivity and the flexibility to commit resources to solving (seemingly) vexing issues for incumbents – or at least carving (seemingly) obvious shortcuts.

The prior wave of change agents to image licensing, deployed unique aggregation methods (crowd sourcing) with simple low cost access (credit system). iStockphoto, Fotolia and Shutterstock all sprung forth from the graphic design and amateur photographer world, where then-present problems – like the complexity, limited inventory and cost of acquisition – were directly challenged with engaging the network effect of the crowd. As change agents, both the network effect in establishing a community and the use of DSLRs were exploited as the primary means to success. The impact to incumbents was transformative, as it displaced the industry and redefined the marketplace and its rules.

Our present-day change agents in image licensing are once again focusing in on network effects and ignoring incumbent rules, and coming from the outside to do it. Where they are coming from is reflective in their solutions, will inform their market success and adoption, and will ultimately become another leader in transforming an industry.

In a prior post I outlined how the second wave of user generated content platforms are generating significant momentum. Many new businesses that seek change agent status see the path strictly through mobile, while others mobile is secondary to their platform.

Not all mobile aggregators will survive without solving the client side of the business. Foap, a stock photo startup focusing on mobile capture harvesting from the crowd, differentiates itself by its request platform experience. Perhaps similar to what OnRequest Images attempted to spearhead years ago (but prior to the benefit of present market conditions that make aggregation possible), Foap is communicating a personalized and unique source of corporate branding/marketing content (“Missions”). Competitive to Foap in the request platform space is startup Snapwire and ImageBrief. Where Snapwire is more centered on engaging the mobile photographer for their request platform, to ImageBrief mobile capture is an afterthought (perhaps due to their inception prior to a viable commercial mobile capture market).

More unique paths to transforming the industry are being carved by outsiders, all stemming from equally unique places. EyeEm, often referred to as the Instagram of Europe, has been explicit on its interest to enter the image licensing market (as well as monetizing its visual recognition technology), and has both the content and the resources to leverage against its competitors. Mobile-focused, EyeEm will no doubt stake further advantages in its ability to generate a network effect through its community of users – likewise with Scoopshot, who upped the ante on incumbents Demotix (Corbis) by not only committing to the network effect of mobile, but also more importantly of Twitter. The ethereal 500px are photo enthusiasts who have succeeded in aggregating (largely DSLR) along the lines of best of breed, evangelizing curation over all else. While they have outsider status, is their proposition unique enough to be transformative?

Some of the most compelling propositions to the image industry are still from technology, through attempts to monetize things like visual recognition tech (Stipple), but some non-incumbents might have a leg up on the competition purely based on where they’re from. Like iStockphoto, Imgembed comes from the design industry, which is a critical bridge between the needs and requirements of customers – or, more succinctly, the customer is defining the product. Imgembed seeks to solve the current gaps within unauthorized use, attribution and monetization, through an end-to-end system that provides transparency to all parties involved. Their platform could eventually be an immediate answer to not only closing gaps in the industry, but define how licensing is conducted. Given their broad exposure in the design industry, and proven ability to build an effective and influential network, they might be the change agent in a crowded field of aspirants.

Where Have The Customers Gone?

The short – and perhaps pithy – answer to where licensees of stock imagery congregate these days is “Shutterstock”, but the longer answer is more interesting, and reveals client-side fragmentation even with recent supply-side consolidation.

Nearly twenty years ago, the stock agency landscape was fragmented and analog, two of the requirements for Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein’s success. Their biggest achievement – like successors iStockphoto and Shutterstock – was in building a platform that had no peer in delivery to customers, across speed and accuracy of search, ease of use and price. Klein often referred to “the power of the platform”, and certainly today no one can boast platform power better than Shutterstock.

In recent past the value prop post-recession was price. iStockphoto and their peers instigated the balance of market share shift toward inexpensive credit-based prices, but the real battle in the trenches was around ease of use and access – price was important, but given the overall increase in price variance industry-wide it gradually ceded its argument to access. Market education, and the guidance of expectations fostered from mobile apps, informed customers along immediacy and not price.

Content was an afterthought, as oversupply afforded plenty of options in one place. The more customers turned to Google for image searches, and organic means of finding content via social platforms, the more fragmented the market became as did the noise-to-signal ratio. The non-exclusive nature of the industry in some ways worked against itself and siphoned off traffic from iStockphoto and Fotolia, as they all represented the same content, so why not go to Shutterstock’s all you can eat buffet?

So, where are the customers now? There are more of them, yes, and they are licensing more for shorter duration of use, so volume increased. The major problem with identifying where the customers are is tied to their behavior – they’re everywhere, yet nowhere (specific), spread out across the social graph and business landscape. More than ever, they’re finely and narrowly segmented from the personal publisher/passive user to seasoned ad campaigner. Moreover, they’ve moved on from traditional content sources, and often the only and earliest affiliation they have with licensing images is from iStockphoto, who set expectations that few businesses have been successful in emulating years later.

To reach customers with the type of network effect and scale of an iStockphoto or Shutterstock, you need a platform and truly unique proposition. For aggregators, the good news is there’s plenty of content on the market for free; rights grabs by Instagram and other apps, who aren’t even in the business of licensing, show how easy it is to gain broad rights to content. If you’re focused on licensing from the outset, like Foap, it’s a simple and transparent acquisition strategy (and a mobile one). The only real way to capitalize on acquired content, and engage customers, is to continue to shorten the span of the act of licensing, so that it becomes a mist in the background – the deus ex machina that simply grants permissions and exchanges money simply, effectively, and quickly.