Dropping iStockphoto Exclusivity

Recent events at iStockphoto and Getty Images have put iStock exclusive and non-exclusive contributors in a bind.  They are tied, financially, to a company that they no longer wish to support.  I’ve had some emails in my inbox with questions about the world outside of iStockphoto (for contributors).  Let’s look at some things to keep in mind when you’ve had enough.

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How Did We Get Here

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One thing that iStock/Getty is doing that has (recently) angered contributors is their announcement of a new “subscription” plan.  This move is an attack on rival stock image site Shutterstock, whose bread and butter since inception has come from their subscription plan sales.  For a fixed price per month, buyers can license a certain number of images per day, of any size.  If an image is licensed, the contributor at Shutterstock gets a set royalty, based on their lifetime sales there.  Royalties range from $.25 to $.38.  Additionally, there are higher priced paying sales for various reasons that can put more money in the pocket of the artist.

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iStock/Getty has a similar program in place with their site Thinkstock.com .  Non-exclusive contributors to iStockphoto are forced to have their content available in the Thinkstock collection, and they can receive a crazy mix of royalties per sale, which is detailed here. Apparently, iStock/Getty has been unable to grow or make the Thinkstock collection profitable to their liking, as they are now implementing a psuedo-subscription plan on iStockphoto proper.  iStock already has a subscription plan in place, where a buyer receives a certain number of credits to license photos per day, and those credits do not roll over.  That program, which paid a relatively speaking “fair” royalty to contributors, is going away, and now, this new plan pays out like this:

  • Non-exclusive: All Collections: $0.28/download
  • Main (exclusive): $0.34/download
  • Signature (exclusive): $0.75/download
  • Signature+ (exclusive): $2.50/download
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The details on the buyer side have yet to be released, but there will be two price tiers, one which will just allow downloads (of any size) from the main collection, and one that will allow a specific number from any collection, based on tier, and that is, supposedly, per month.

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So, once can see why contributors are upset – an S+ image at XXXL size, which could have brought $30-$50 to a contributor, will now bring, at most $2.50 .  Someone created this chart to show what happens when buyers switch to this plan:

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Percentage of subs sales –> Loss of revenue

  • 0  –>    0.00%
  • 10 –>    8.04%
  • 20 –>    16.08%
  • 30 –>    24.13%
  • 40 –>    32.17%
  • 50 –>    40.21%
  • 60 –>    48.25%
  • 70 –>    56.29%
  • 80 –>    64.34%
  • 90 –>    72.38%
  • 100 –> 80.42%
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The other event that is causing an uproar is Getty’s new plan to use an “embedded viewer” to allow “non-commercial” websites to use a large portion of the Getty Images collection, for free, with no watermarks.  And Getty’s new definition of “non-commercial” includes websites that make money from their site and content.  They just aren’t allowed to use the embedded content to “promote” their site.  If you hadn’t thought about it, you might not realize that this definition would include pretty much any website that has articles and news content.  Yahoo, Buzzfeed, CNN, The New York Times.  All of these companies can use these images for free, with no compensation to the creating artists.  For example, here is a lovely iStockphoto E+ (exclusive image) that I am going to utilize for “free”.

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Getty admits that they have been unsuccessful at stopping illegal usage of copyrighted content on “non-commercial” blogs and websites, and have essentially said they are solving the problem by “legalizing” the behavior, even though a huge number of such users do legally license works for such uses.  They’ve gone from a price that “the industry” doesn’t like straight to zero.  Apparently, even $1 for a blog use is too much to ask.  Getty is not only killing a revenue stream for artists on its own site, but damaging the artists’ ability to monetize their content on other sites.  For now that the word has spread that “images are free to use on blogs”, the public is back to the assumption that anything found online is free and public domain.  They aren’t going to discern between using an “embedded viewer” and just grabbing images they find in Google and using those.

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Getty says this is now a “promotional” use, and these embedded images will lead buyers back to license the work at full price, if they so desire.  We’ve been down this road before, in various forms, and generally, this sort of “promotion” results in no additional sales.  So, is it good for Getty?  Sure – they’re populating the web with lots of “embedded viewers” that they can later try to monetize by adding in advertising.  Will the contributor benefit?  What do you think?

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So You’ve Had Enough

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If you’re an iStockphoto exclusive contributor, and you’re riding the wave downward, you might be thinking about jumping ship.  Either switching to be an independent artist with work still on iStockphoto, or dropping them altogether.  Well, you need to do research to see how other people in similar situations have fared.  One great resource is the Microstock Group Forum.  Using the search, you will find lots of discussions comparing how contributors fare at various agencies.  Some contributors even publish monthly blog posts showing their income percentages across their agencies.  You will also find a listing of all the microstock agencies out there.  You can use this to find how they each pay royalties, when they pay, what their license is like, etc., so you can make a decision about where to put your work.

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Once you drop exclusivity, it may take a while to regain that level through licensing at multiple agencies.  One contributor who blogs about his success at doing so is MichaelJayFoto, and you can find his blog here.  Since iStockphoto completely dropped my portfolio last April, I don’t have the “benefit” of that income stream.  All of my stock income comes from Stocksy United, and the several other agencies listed on my portfolio page.  I have kept my list of distributors small, as I don’t particularly trust all the smaller agencies, and I don’t have the time to maintain so many accounts.  While I have the best intentions, my current income is still lower than it was when I was on iStockphoto.

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A first step at preparing to go independent is to go back and add meta-data to all of your images.  I made the mistake of doing all of my titles, keywords and descriptions through iStock’s system.  After nine years of doing that, I have thousands and thousands of images on my drives with no data.  So, my speed at increasing my income currently has been hampered by the fact that I must revisit all these images to add meta.  At the same time, I am re-processing some of them with a new style, and that slows me down as well, even though it may have some benefit.  You can use Adobe Bridge, Lightroom or your graphics software to add this data.

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Something else to look into is the various services that have emerged to serve contributors, some of which you can find forums for on this MSG page.  Some, like StockPerformer, can help you track your sales across multiple sites.  Others can help you with submission to your various distributors.  I keep a drive with just my final .jpgs for submission.  Each shoot has subfolders for each agency, “waiting” and “going”.  This way, I can keep track of what has been sent where.

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Keep in mind that other microstock sites have different standards for acceptance.  It used to be that iStock had very high standards, and if you could get in there, your images would likely be accepted anywhere.  However, in the last 6-8 months, as we know, iStock has been accepting anything that has pixels.  In hindsight, this was likely a pre-emptive move for this new sub program, to give them something to brag about.  Because of this, you can’t assume that all of your content will be easily accepted at other sites.

One alternative option is to self-host your own stock photo site.  This can range from really easy to a bit more involved.  If you use Photoshelter (link here), it has a pretty simple drag and drop upload interface, easy pricing options, advanced search, etc.  It has a cost per year, and they take 10% of the sales as a fee, but since all they do is host, maintain and improve the site, I think it’s worth it.  You can also install a sales product on your own server, like KTools or Symbiostock that will allow you to keep all the proceeds from your sales.  KTools has an up front cost to purchase the software, and while flexible, you can be hampered by their upgrade process at times.  Symbiostock is free and is built on WordPress.  It is open source, so interested parties can improve on it.  Symbiostock allows you to network your site with a number of other sites so a buyer can see your images as well as those from your friends.  It’s a pretty neat idea.  It does take a bit more work, and some knowledge of WordPress to get things going and looking good.

Many contributors have expressed an interest in joining Stocksy United.  They see it as a lifeboat being paddled away from the Titanic.  With good reason.  It has a cool, modern aesthetic.  It is quick on its feet.  The site is stable.  Royalties are a flat %50 to contributors on regular licenses and 100% on extended licenses.  Since inception a year ago, it has already moved into the black and is growing admirably, at 25%/month.  However, do not assume this is an option that everyone will be able to take advantage of.  The number of artists accepted is 500 a year, and the “Call to Artists” is currently closed until next month.  Stocksy has a very distinctive “style” and “look” in its collection, as can be seen by viewing the front page of the site.  A contributor will need to be able to shoot consistently in that style.  A good overview of the kind of images they like can be found in their recent blog countdown of the 20 Top Trends in Photography for the last year.  Your best bet, when applying, is to make a tight collection of work that best represents your ability to contribute to Stocksy, in an online portfolio, and perhaps post it for comments on MSG.

One option is to work to gain acceptance, and once in, you can upload your content privately, until your wish to turn your portfolio “on”.  This is something you can do while waiting out your 30 days once giving notice of dropping exclusivity.  Something else you can do, if you feel the need to delete a large portion of your content, is to use my Greasemonkey iStock Image Deactivation script.  If you have Greasemonkey installed, you can just click that script and it will put deactivation buttons on your my_uploads page.  I’ve been told it still works, although I have no way of testing it.

Hopefully some of this has helped to answer your questions.  You can email me directly if there’s anything I need to add here using my contact form, above.

2 thoughts on Dropping iStockphoto Exclusivity

  1. Excellent post Sean, i personally think it is a disgrace with what they are doing. I’ve been using snapmarket to buy and sell photos recently. They don’t have a whole heap of photos just yet but they seem to be growing every day. For those interested – http://snapmarket.com

  2. Superb recap, Sean – you are doing fellow artists a great service with your comments and links here.

    Thanks for being one of the good guys.

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