iStockPhoto Founder Re-Creates Two-Tier Stock Industry



When Bruce Livingstone launched iStockPhoto thirteen years ago, he split the stock industry. For the first time, enthusiasts — people with no connections to the photography industry, no professional training and no experience of creating for a market — could upload their photographs and make money from their talent. The result was a revolution. While established professionals were able to continue selling through Corbis and Getty (although against greater competition), engineers like Sean Locke, one of iStockPhoto’s first contributors, were able to quit their day jobs, buy a consumer DSLR and make livings, sometimes good livings, as microstock photographers. Other enthusiasts with careers they didn’t want to leave have been able to make a bit of extra cash shooting and uploading at the weekends.

That revolution has been grinding to a halt. Multiple platforms have followed iStockPhoto but the sale of the site to Getty in 2006 for $50 million allowed it to outgrow its copycats, become the biggest microstock site on the Web — and slash commissions until they were as low as 15 percent. Yuri Arcurs, arguably the world’s most successful microstock photographer, quit iStockPhoto last year to focus on direct sales, claiming that the prices and commissions were now too low to cover the costs of production. In March, iStockPhoto expelled Sean Locke after he pointed out on his blog that the company was giving away its photographers’ images to users of Google Docs.

Now though, a new revolution may be under way, and once again Bruce Livingstone is at the center.


Profit-Sharing for Photographers

Stocksy, Livingstone’s latest enterprise, is a new stock site that takes a completely different approach to delivering images from photographers to buyers. Like many sites, photographers will receive 50 percent of the sales price of their photos but they’ll also receive 100 percent of the price of extended licenses and a share of the profits the company generates.

That’s because Stocksy is a photographer’s co-operative, owned and operated by the people who create the photos the site sells. Instead of generating profits for a corporation, Stocksy will distribute its profits to its contributors.

The idea came from photographers themselves, disappointed at the structure the industry had developed.

“Photographers came to visit us at our house in Los Angeles. They all said the same thing. They wanted more. They were disillusioned and frustrated with the state of affairs in the industry — artists were not fairly paid for the work they were creating,” Livingstone explained to us in an email from British Columbia. “We started talking about what would make a better business model, what would give photographers ownership, a decent royalty and a voice in how the business was run. Cooperatives in rural Canada and co-op structures are well developed and quite advanced as they have been around for a long time supporting group farms. The co-op keeps enough cash to operate, but the collective owners get all the money.”

Stocksy currently has 250 members. Most are photographers but some are employees and directors who provide advice. Each year, the co-op will hold an Annual General Meeting at which shareholders will vote on the running of the business. Once the firm is profitable, 90 percent of profits will paid to photographers with 10 percent going to employees, directors and board members.

That revenue-sharing may be unique in the world of photography but it also marks another change in the development of the stock industry. While anyone can upload an image and make it available for sale, following a review of the photo, on a microstock site, Stocksy maintains much of the exclusivity familiar to photographers who have tried to sell through Corbis or Getty. Photographers can apply to sell through Stocksy but the co-op will only invite photographers to join if their images match the co-operative’s aesthetic criteria. Stocksy is looking for photographers who can demonstrate a style and workflow that is consistent and unique, and who produce images that go beyond “too-perfect models pretending to do things, floating in white space or anything that appears to be forced conceptually.”

If that means that the site will have a relatively small collection, that’s fine with Bruce Livingstone.

“Something that’s really important for us is not to compete with any other agency on numbers of images or numbers of photographers,” says Livingstone. “That game is old and already has a winner. The size of the collection creates too much competition for photographers, dilutes earnings and disappoints buyers when presented with tens of thousands of bad results. The bigger the collection the worse the experience for everyone. It becomes unmanageable and inexplicably overwhelming for the consumer…. Each picture found on Stocksy should be inherently useful and special.”

Prices for the images are generally higher than those found on microstock sites, with RF licenses for small images starting at $10 and rising to $100 for X-Large photos of 2829 x 4242 pixels. Licenses for unlimited print runs or resale products cost even more. Livingstone, though, is confident that buyers will be willing pay a premium not just for the higher quality of the site’s curated collection but because supporting a sustainable model for photographers is the right thing to do.

The Return of the Two-Tier Stock Industry

Despite deliberately avoiding direct competition with iStockPhoto’s giant collection, Stocksy is clearly intended as an alternative to the microstock site that Livingstone created. Asked how he felt regarding the way the site has developed since its sale to Getty, Livingstone responded with a mixture of admiration at the growth Getty was able to create and disappointment at what they did with that growth.

“Getty grew the revenues on iStock exponentially. I couldn’t have done that alone. It’s what happened to iStockphoto after I left that is really at issue. The focus on corporate profits, not on fair pay for photographers is what we believe is problematic.”

If Stocksy succeeds, it will go some way towards solving that problem. But the co-op’s exclusivity means that it can only solve the problem partially. Livingstone recommends that photographers who want to succeed in stock find a niche, specialize and commit to shooting it full-time. Enthusiasts who want to remain part-time will have to stick with sites like iStockPhoto, creating a two-tier stock industry made up of committed professionals working and selling together, and part-timers accepting the small fees delivered by microstock sites.

“If that’s how it plays out,” says Livingstone, “then I think that’s fine.”

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