The Getty Monster

Last week there were two tangentially related pieces of news, first that the last NCTJ accredited press photography course was ending in Sheffield and second that Getty were extending their deal with Flickr to be open to everyone.

Responding to the BJP Andrew Cropley, principal of Norton College said:

The future of the press photography and photojournalism block release and full time courses is currently being reviewed following government funding cuts to adult courses, a fall in the number of applications to this course and changes within the media industry.

There’s a few interesting things in this, first is the cut in Government funding. This often causes colleges to go into a depressionary cycle, as the number of courses gets cut, so there are fewer students and as there are fewer students more courses get cut. The second point is a bit more interesting, as although the first would have an effect, it’s been my experience that photography courses are over-subscribed, so I’d be interested to know why applications have fallen. Is it something happening across the board? to photography courses? or just this course?

Finally there’s ‘changes within the media industry’ that probably means all manner of things which could be the subject of a thousand other articles. But one of the biggest causes is the subscription deals that the big agencies have made with publishers. More than ever the media industry has an insatiable need for images but declining circulation among traditional publications has led to cuts in Editorial budgets. Instead of investing the profits in the good times companies had been happily creaming them off and are now cutting back Editorial savagely.

This leads us to another depressionary cycle where the circulation falls so publications cut back on editorial staff, paper quality, number of pages and as the quality of the publication falls, circulation falls further.

Agencies like Getty have led the way with subscription deals for publications that give them unlimited access to their libraries for a fixed amount. This reduces the price of photography to virtually nothing. If a picture editor has an image from a freelancer and another from an agency with a subscription deal of the same subject in front of them, the pressure from the accountants is to go with the ‘free’ Getty picture every time.

Getty’s brutal ‘all you can eat’ model is an attempt to price everyone else out of the market. Last year Alamy opened up their library to unlimited subscription deals for UK newspapers, many Alamy contributors didn’t opt-in. Some of those who have, have asked not to be credited when their work appears via Alamy in newspapers, presumably out of the shame of how lowly they value their work.

We’re still waiting to see who’ll blink first, but I suspect it won’t be Getty.

The other strategy Getty employ is to simply buy up the competition. They recently acquired Rex Features, after more than 50 years as an independent agency Rex wasn’t exactly at the top end of the market either. Contributors frequently complained of low reproduction rates, late payment and picture usages missing from their sales sheets. The future of around 80 people that Rex employs doesn’t look very rosy, once Getty have hoovered up the library no doubt they will find little need for the people there anymore.

Which brings us to the second piece of news and Getty’s most recent ‘acquisition’ – Flickr. Getty has had a deal with Flickr for the last two years where Getty editors approached Flickr users to add images to their Flickr Collection. Contributors who accepted signed an exclusive contact with Getty and received 20% or 30% cut of sales for royalty-free and rights-managed respectively. It’s not known how the remaining 80%/70% is split between Getty and Flickr.

The deal with contributors remains the same, exclusive rights and a 80/20 or 70/30 split of sales to Getty, but instead of Getty editors trawling Flickr for images to add to their collection image buyers will be able to request images from any user on Flickr. Users will have to opt-in to have their images available to licence and at the moment it’s all or nothing, users can’t pick which images are available if they opt-in. In the Flickr Getty FAQ it does say however that Getty will contact users every time someone requests an image and if they don’t reply or don’t want to they won’t license the image.

It’s not mentioned if images in the Flickr collection will be available to publications with subscription deals, but as Getty has to contact the image owner every time an image is requested I doubt it’ll make much of a dent in the newspaper market.

Now Getty doesn’t have editors crawling Flickr what exactly are they doing for their 70% cut? Before digital cameras came on the scene photographers would send agencies their slides or negatives, the agency would scan or print them, touch them up and make any colour corrections before sending them on to clients as digital files or prints. They would negotiate sales with clients and at the end of the month they would send the photographer a sales sheet showing what had sold to who and for how much. For this work agencies would take a 50/50 cut of the sales, more generous agencies gave photographers a 60/40 cut.

So now photographers are capturing their files digitally, making adjustments on their computer, captioning and keywording files before uploading them to Flickr. And all Getty are doing for their massive 70% cut is negotiating a price when someone asks and sending the invoice. That doesn’t sound like a fair deal for photographers who are doing more than 70% of the work.

But not only are you giving Getty 70% for the privilege of selling your work, you can’t sell it anywhere else. The Flickr FAQ says:

Getty Images has the exclusive right to license your images and images substantially similar to those in a commercial context once you’ve accepted their invitation (and signed the Getty Images Contributor Agreement). Any and all of your other non-similar photographs not in the Flickr collection can be sold freely by you, though not on Flickr itself, because that goes against our Community Guidelines. You know, like, don’t use Flickr for commercial purposes.

So once you’ve signed your deal with the devil, he not only gets your soul, but anything that looks ‘substantially similar’ and to add insult to injury you can’t sell your images on Flickr yourself, because you know, that would be unfair.

Flickr has over 40 million registered users and it’s 4 billionth image was uploaded last October dwarfing Getty’s 24.7 million and (Getty owned) iStockPhoto’s 6.9 million collections. Although Facebook still leads the pack with 2.5 billion images uploaded every month.

So now there’s potentially over 4 billion images ready to flood the market at whatever price Getty decides. Remember that they have little interest in keeping that price high, once they’ve covered the cost of their staff and infrastructure, most of which Flickr is shouldering, they’re making pure profit. And if cutting into those profits a bit means bankrupting a big competitor, they’ll have little hesitation in doing it.

This is a bad deal for just about everyone but Getty, unless Flickr is getting a substantial cut out of the 70%, but a lot of Flickr’s infrastructure costs are covered by Pro subscriptions, advertising and Yahoo! backing anyway.

Getty has just acquired, at no extra cost, over 40 million contributors with 4 billion images. All it has to do is name it’s price when a buyer comes along and take it’s nice fat 70% cut.