There are often two sides to an industry. The side the customer sees, and the "inside" that industry people see. This article is about the inside of the stock image industry.
In the 1990s, the licensing of stock imagery (photos, footage and art) was mostly an offline business, especially for footage, which required previews and masters to be delivered on videotape. Around 2000, more stock footage sources began offering watermarked previews online and some FTP master delivery. Fully automated e-commerce stock image Websites were just starting to emerge, but, the original stock image model remained for the most part: Clients spoke directly to real people, negotiated licensing and paid a licensing fee that was fair to both parties.
A few years later, "microstock" companies began to emerge. Microstock takes advantage of digital technology using servers to do most of the work. It's an efficient way to move imagery around but must be managed carefully to avoid problems that are inherent to the model. During the great recession, microstock flourished. Production budgets were cut, and microstock benefited because they were willing and able to quickly discount (other people's) imagery.
The problem with microstock for the contributor
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not for man's greed."
After 2010, microstock became a fad, a way to generate quick revenue. Get some servers and hire some marketing folks to gather contributors and generate customers. A simple, but shortsighted concept. What resulted was a price war. Imagery, sometimes expensive to produce by the photographer, was (and still is) reduced in price to as little as a few cents. Microstock is about volume and has no care for long-term sustainability. It's not important to them that the photographer make any profit. The photographer is just a widget in the microstock machine.
The problem with microstock for the customer
If you don’t mind working with servers, then microstock might be just fine for you. Except for one thing: Copyright Infringement.
Several of the microstock sources use the “open to anyone” YouTube model. Anyone, from any country, can create an account and upload content 24/7. This is the river of content these companies thrive on. There is no vetting. No security. Anyone can come on-board with anything. In just the past year, I have compiled a long list of infringements occurring at several major, well-known microstock Websites. These incidents were brought to my attention by several photographers, some just friends, others which we represent. Pirates, most likely outside of the US, are gathering footage and stills owned by others, and selling them on microstock Websites. Ultimately, customers download the pirated content thinking it is legitimate.
When the real photographer and copyright owner identifies an infringement and contacts the microstock company, they are presented with a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice. Usually the takedown Webpage states how much the company “truly cares” about the contributor’s copyrights and for them to complete the form. Once submitted, they say they’ll investigate and remove the content, if necessary. The problem is, a microstock company is a microstock company, not an ISP, and is not protected under DMCA safe harbor. These companies post the DMCA front simply to avoid or reduce copyright infringement claims. Since this is just smoke and mirrors, contributors should feel free to seek compensation if their content was being sold without permission. For the customer, make certain the purchase agreement includes indemnification from the seller. This is a legal promise from them that you’ll be protected in case you are sued by the copyright owner for their mistake.
There is some good news
Customers who require stock imagery for their projects need not ever utilize microstock. Believe it or not, there are still many non-microstock sources, which happen to be excellent. Their collections are usually smaller and better managed. Clients have access to premium content and to real, live people that can help them get what they need fast - including previews, masters and customized licensing. The fees are usually higher than microstock, but you get what you pay for. In the end, your project benefits, your client is happy, and your life is better.
Martin Lisius is producer, director, cinematographer and the founder and CEO at Texas-based Prairie Pictures, Inc. He created StormStock, a collection of premium weather footage, in 1993.