by Robert Henson, Reprinted by permission from Talls Fir Media

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.

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