Is Picfair fair?

Everyone takes photos. I’m not a professional photographer – I wouldn’t call myself a photographer of any kind – but everywhere I travel I take pictures and, sometimes, editors buy them and publish them.

Most of the time, though, they don’t. That’s often for editorial reasons – my travel snaps of farflung corners of the Middle East, even if they’re up to snuff quality-wise (which they often aren’t), don’t have the wow factor for art directors. I tweet them or blog them – Jordan here, Egypt there, occasional oddities – but that’s it.

It’s also often for practical reasons. Maybe the editor has an ongoing deal with one of the larger picture agencies, to buy in bulk for mass invoicing at the end of the month. They need an image quickly and I’m in the back of beyond on a dodgy 3G connection. They want to buy full world rights in all media in perpetuity, and I refuse.

Benji Lanyado, though, has had a big idea.

Last year [says Benji] 9 million images were added to global image stocks. Over the same period of time 142 BILLION images were added to Facebook and Instagram alone. The majority of these are not fit for market, but if 0.01% of them are – which I’d bet they are – that’s 14 million images. 14 million images that aren’t getting to market.

0.01% might be way off. Then again, 0.001% (1.4m images each year – and, presumably, growing) or even 0.0001% (140,000) would still represent significant numbers. Benji has identified not just a gap in the market, but a whole new market. He has just launched Picfair to change the way images are bought and sold online, and to make the world of image licensing less exclusive.

His story is a fantastic one – very exciting to read. Picfair itself is still in beta. I’m not going to explain it, because it’s startlingly simple. You’ll understand it in seconds. Click here.

See? Couldn’t be more straightforward. Picture agencies are notoriously complicated to deal with – look at Alamy’s guidelines (and they’re one of the easier ones). None of my pics would pass their quality control for submission. I’ve got thousands, from trips going back years, sitting on my hard drive doing nothing. Occasionally I’ll sell a handful of recent ones, but the rest just sit there.

It seems I’ve got nothing to lose by uploading them to Picfair.

Or that’s what I first thought.

So I chewed over some issues, got in touch with Benji on Twitter, and emailed him some questions – I made them as hardball as I could, not because Picfair is a poor idea (it isn’t), but because such a good idea merits testing to destruction, or as near as you can get.

You’ll see that I came at this from a ‘creatives’ angle, which is my home turf. I don’t know anything about tech, marketing, business management, any of that. Please, tech journalists, marketing types, legal folk, pick up the ball and run with it.

Q&A with Benji Lanyado of Picfair

[MATTHEW TELLER:] Picfair’s whole concept rests on single-use licensing made easy. Downloaders may be reputable firms or individuals – or they may not. Once the original is downloaded, the downloader can do what they want with it – and, since it’s only cost them peanuts, they’re unlikely to value it as highly as if they’d paid market rates. They’re also unlikely to fear the consequences of unauthorised reuse: Picfair’s 10x penalty on a £5 image (or even a £20 image) is no penalty at all for a mid-circulation magazine. What is Picfair doing to prevent misuse of images?

[BENJI LANYADO:] As much as it can. We can’t scour the entire web for unauthorised use, but if we discover it, we’ll act appropriately. If the penalty rates need to be higher, we’ll raise them. Also… I’d dispute your use of the words “peanuts” and “market rates”. If a photographer thinks their image is worth £5, that is its rate on the market. Market rates shouldn’t be fixed by an agency looking at a P&L column, they should be determined by the market. I also think it’s unfair to think that an editor/buyer is more likely to abuse an image if it’s cheaper than an overpriced image from an legacy agency – the vast majority of picture editors want to play fair, and are increasingly aware of the consequences of image misuse in the name-and-shame internet age.

[Matthew responds:] That’s absolutely true: my question was focused more on the potential for people who aren’t working in media to misuse cheap, single-licensed images, either through negligence or ignorance. I made the “peanuts” comment because Picfair’s whole model rests on eliminating agency commissions from the photographer-publisher transaction. By definition that will sharply reduce the cost to buyers. Picfair images will be cheap in monetary terms; I’m concerned they may also feel cheap in value terms – and a free market could, worryingly, end up nudging photographers to compete on a race to the bottom.

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What motivation is there for professional photographers, with pre-existing relationships with larger agencies and publishers, to use Picfair to sell their world-class images?

[BENJI:] The larger agencies are usually ripping them off. The average cut taken by an agency is 74%, and, increasingly, they take your copyright from you too, and re-sell the images in bulk. Look at what AirBnB did to the holiday rental market – they removed the agency tier because it doesn’t need to be there, connecting the buyer to the seller so everyone gets a better deal. The image licensing industry can be viewed in exactly the same way.

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As a writer-photographer, I’m worried that if I upload to Picfair I could potentially be putting my existing relationships in jeopardy. Say I upload a travel image to Picfair and put a price of £10 on it. Then I get commissioned to write about that destination for a magazine. I send the editor a selection of my images, including the one I uploaded. 

Scenario 1 – the editor buys my image directly from me for £100, then later discovers they could have had the same pic for £10 from Picfair, accuses me of deception and blacklists me.

Scenario 2 – during layout the editor finds my image on Picfair, quietly downloads it for £10, emails me to say they’ve found another source so won’t need my selections, then runs my image in the mag anyway. I suddenly hate the editor. Picfair has left me £90 out of pocket. I hate Picfair too.

In both scenarios, wouldn’t I have been better off if I hadn’t tangled with Picfair at all?

[BENJI:] Yup, agree. But this represent a *very* small use case. If you weren’t to “tangle” with Picfair, however, you’d be preventing the possibility of 20 licenses from 20 different publications. Ok, you’ve made £100, but have you stopped yourself from making £200? Every photographer who adds an image to Picfair will run this risk, however small it is. We aren’t pushing people to add their images to the site. If they want to license them separately, they are free to delete their image from Picfair’s database. The majority of Picfair users, however, will be non-professionals, who have never had a platform on which to license their material – this is a huge value add, both for them and for people wanting to look beyond legacy agency options.

[Matthew responds:] It is, I agree – but what Benji just said seems to me to be a big deal. The implication – once we’ve all given a thumbs-up to new, value-added interaction between casual uploaders and casual buyers – is that Picfair could end up being a back-channel way for corporate media buyers to bypass pro photographers at the legacy agencies. Picfair’s model has the potential to penalise pro photographers. They may, then, stay away – but if the picture eds they usually deal with are buying replacement images quickly and easily from non-professional sources via Picfair, that could seriously damage an already-squeezed market. Instead of levelling the playing field, Picfair could end up making it harder for pro photographers to earn a living – and easier for media firms to maintain the whip hand.

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Flat-fee licensing raises questions. Getting £10 for a pic being used on a little-known website isn’t too bad. Getting £10 for it being used 1/4 page in a mid-circulation magazine is a serious blow. Getting £10 for it being used full-bleed as a wraparound cover for a market-leading title is an utter disaster. Doesn’t the fact that print magazines pay different rates for images used at different sizes on the page mean that Picfair’s fees are doing photographers seeking print publication a disservice?

You’re creating an entirely new market – but if there are no hints as to which images sell (and which don’t) at different price-points, how can uploaders know if they’re selling themselves short?

[BENJI:] Picfair is five days old. Really we’re still waiting for the market to develop and mature – soon I want the site to be dripping in data, helping photographers “intelligently” price their images. But one thing will always remain – Picfair doesn’t price the images… the photographers do. Of course this runs the risk of undervaluation, but such is a market. You find bargains on eBay, why shouldn’t you find them on Picfair?

I’d flip this theory on its head too: a photographer who has never added an image to a marketplace or agency, and then gets his/her image in a magazine for £10 – they have £10 more than they did when they started. If they feel they could have got more, they can increase the price of the image for the next time it gets licensed.

[Matthew responds:] It’s a great answer, but I’d be interested to know what ‘dripping in data’ might mean, and what specific tools will be available for uploaders to be able to ‘intelligently’ price images. Mark Hodson of 101 Holidays also raised this on Twitter here. Note Benji’s response there.

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What’s to stop Picfair becoming a bargain bucket for dross images? Couldn’t anyone upload any old rubbish, tagged with any keywords they like? Doesn’t Picfair’s simplicity and useability mean serious buyers might end up having to slog through pages of £1 snaps to find anything good – therefore quickly giving up on Picfair altogether?

[BENJI:] Picfair relies on image views and our “trending” algorithm to sort images, for now. Have a look at the site right now, I think it sorts things very nicely indeed. If an image is “dross”, it’s highly unlikely to have accumulated many pic views or social shares. Our search functionality currently takes all of this into account, so that the algorithmically determined “wheat” can rise to the top. It isn’t perfect, yet, but I believe it’s a compelling alternative to editorially-curated search results – images chosen by their popularity. I’ll improve the code until it works for publishers – we’re considering adding an “editor’s pick” function whereby high-standard images are given extra prominence.

[Matthew responds:] The trending idea works well for casual browsers – but many time-pressed buyers will have specific wants, in terms of keywords and/or subjects. My sense is they will care less about images that are popular, and more about ones that are good – the two don’t necessarily coincide. If left unchecked, the quality factor could be a serious pitfall in the months ahead, as Picfair’s image database grows.

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What is Picfair doing to make it worthwhile for art directors with bigger budgets and mass-market editorial reach to visit regularly?

[BENJI:] Nothing, yet. Picfair is there for everyone, from art directors to bloggers.

[Matthew responds:] I’m afraid this strikes me as another cause for concern. Picfair is fun to use, and embodies an exciting, iconoclastic approach to business – but I need to know that the time I spend uploading means my images will get to be seen by more than just passersby and other uploaders. I want my images to sell. Picture editors worldwide need to be persuaded to jump in, and media companies need to be convinced to switch budgetary resources away from the legacy agencies. If that doesn’t happen, I can’t see Picfair making it.

Conclusion

Picfair is a brilliant idea that deserves to succeed. The current system of image licensing is a mess. It’s not hard to see that the trade-off it embodies – publishers benefiting from complex contracts and control of rights, photographers benefiting from royalties and variable spot rates – has been blown out of the water by social media, free sharing, smartphone quality, citizen journalism… er, just about everything.

Picfair’s model, by contrast, offers single-use licensing as a great alternative for photographers, and easy flat fees to draw in new buyers. That’s a win for images that are currently not being brought to market, and a win for photographers who currently have no access to buyers.

For everyone else, though, it’s still a trade-off. And I’m not sure, yet, how that will play out. It’s tempting to see Picfair as a new easyJet – yes, the idea is that good – blasting a hole in cosily ossified relationships that only please the suits, sparking fresh demand by creating a whole new market, putting power in the hands of ordinary people.

But it’s not quite there, I don’t think. I can foresee problems arising from Picfair’s conscious lack of curation (or what used to be called editorial control). An unregulated free market in images has the potential to, firstly, drive down prices – great for big business, handy for enthusiastic amateurs, terrible if you’re trying to make a living from your pictures – and secondly, to drive down quality, with the best photographers staying away altogether, and the best of the rest drowning in a sea of hopeful uploads tagged speculatively low.

You could raise philosophical issues of value-creep: instead of making beautiful images and sharing them – or just keeping them, in the knowledge that there’s no viable mechanism by which people could pay even if they wanted to, maybe we will now, somewhere subconsciously, be putting a price-tag on a sunset. You could also raise issues of model release liability, which I haven’t covered here at all (hat-tip to David Whitley for raising that with me; I’ll let him make the point).

Nobody has to upload to Picfair at all, of course. But the (very slight) potential is there for Picfair to have a negative impact on my (minuscule) photo earnings, even if I do nothing.

That said, I am also happy to lend support to an exciting idea  – and, as I said at the top, I’ve got quite a few not-terrible images lying idle, so I might as well try and leverage some value from them. But I’ll be doing so with a few reservations. And I probably won’t be posting my best, most saleable work just yet.

Always a slow adopter, me.

Huge thanks, of course, to Benji, for taking the time to answer my questions.

13 Comments

  1. Stephanie Williamson-Brittian

    Thanks, I’m gonna try to sell some of my pictures….why not!?

  2. hotel haiku

    @Matthew: Good article, made even greater by the flawed logic in your conclusion…

    Can I ask where are you currently peddling your “most saleable work” ? By your own admission, your image sales are meagre.

    To simplify my argument, and tie in with something you said about “dross” images, you could categorise your image portfolio into 2 columns thus: less saleable, most saleable.

    Yet, you are willing to spend your time uploading and tagging your less saleable work on to PicFair and not your most saleable?

    I don’t get how that works; it’s bizarre!

    I think eventually the market will perhaps decide the value for photos but right now I suggest you put your most saleable work up, not all of it, and set the price that you believe is true, or in this case, fair.

    Don’t waste Benji’s bandwidth and server resources with “dross”.

    I’m also not sure why Benji’s inactivity in attracting regular visits to his site from art directors etc is a major cause for concern right now?

    Anyone will tell you this, and this goes for any directory or marketplace site which in essence is what PicFair is, but the supply has come before the demand.

    PicFair’s main objective in the short term is to acquire content for sale. It’s that simple. It’s a new marketplace.

    I’m not convinced bloggers will be buyers at PicFair as they can (and do) easily find the images they need for free via Google. In actual fact, they are more likely to be trying to peddle their “most saleable” work, if they have any sense!

    @Benji: I wouldn’t even waste resources trying to attract this group as buyers.

  3. Matthew Teller

    @hotel – Thanks for a brilliant comment. Your opening line made me grin!

    To answer your question – where am I peddling my best pictures? Nowhere. They’re sitting on my hard drive. None of them meets picture agency quality guidelines. Occasionally I blog one or two. Sometimes I can sell a few on the back of a commissioned article. Otherwise, zilch. Maybe I’ll bequeath them to science when I die.

    I’m not putting ‘dross’ up, and I hope I’m not wasting Benji’s server space. Dross is ‘unsaleable’ – that’s the third column, to go alongside ‘less saleable’ and ‘more saleable’ 🙂 I’m just cautious – and, to be honest, I’m also not sure how to price images. If a pic of mine can sit for 5 years on my hard drive, generating (say) £100 in one or two direct sales, what price should I place on it on Picfair? £100 would probably bring no sales, seeing as how it is being displayed alongside much lower-priced items. Ditto £50. So – what? £10? If I put it on at £1 would I get 100 sales? Probably not. And it’s also in my interest, as an image-creator, not to set price-expectation at rock bottom from the outset.

    I’d be delighted if I could post all my (thousands of) saleable pics to Picfair – but the reality is images are, and will always be, a sideline for me. Devoting hours to uploads could, in the end, be a waste of time: is it worth my while to spend time choosing, describing, tagging and uploading images, when I currently have no indication whatsoever of demand? Supply must come first, sure – and I’m happy to help give Benji a leg up – but until I know what the demand is, it probably makes more sense for me to do nothing.

    There’s a lot to think about!

  4. hotelhaiku

    @Matthew: The truth is, I am not sure how to price images but if you did price them at £100 a pop, which is what you seem to accept is fair/true value, then you are setting your stall out very clearly in the context of PicFair.

    If no sales, so be it. Better they’re given a chance out in the open on a new platform than gathering digital dust on your hard drive? Perhaps it’s worth testing the market with a handful of your best shots?

    As the head teacher of my son’s primary school says, in the context of their magic ticket lottery, you’ve got to be in it to win it 😉

    Benji is quite rightly building up his ‘stock’, i.e. his supply chain and at some point the demand will start coming. This will determine whether the business model is scaleable and if it will work.

    The cost of running servers requiring such bandwidth will mean it is in his interest to sell 1 item for £100, as opposed to 100 items for £1 each (where the cost to process the payment is 50% of the commission figure).

    Otherwise, he has just created a rather nifty free image repository/marketplace.

  5. Qin Xie

    Thanks for posting this, made very interesting reading and addressed things that I wouldn’t even have considered.

    I signed up just now and put forward some of my favourite images which aren’t up to stock image standards for whatever reason. Perhaps they won’t make any money at all but if not I guess it’s just another platform for syndication.

  6. Stuart Forster

    Benji talks about picture agencies currently taking around 74 per cent of the fee earned from photographers’ images. I’d be interested in understanding how this was calculated. Certainly microstock agencies plus a couple of well-known large agencies take significant cuts but, in my experience, it’s often nearer to 50 per cent.

    I’ve looked at Picfair’s site and it’s nicely designed. How is the company is doing now? It’s a tough industry. Microstock has flooded the market and travel images are prone to earning very little. It’d love to see Benji changing the landscape but I’m sceptical about the possibilities of changing things.

    Do all photos on Picfair need to be model/property released (where appropriate) to cover all eventualities, given the flat fee structure?

    It’s an interesting piece, Matthew. Thanks.

  7. Joe Gaul

    Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for the post which is both relevant and interesting.

    I am giving Picfair a shot with pics already on other microstock sites, which sell for 20 cents upwards, and film scans which don’t cut it with modern agencies in the digital world but probably still have a value to someone.

    It would be nice to be able to set prices by download size, and the lack of this facility makes pricing difficult.

    1. Matthew Teller

      Interesting, Joe. Let us know how it goes.

  8. DaveP

    “[BENJI:] The larger agencies are usually ripping them off. The average cut taken by an agency is 74%, and, increasingly, they take your copyright from you too, and re-sell the images in bulk.”

    This statement is simply NOT true Benji. I’m a long-standing contributor to the larger professional agencies: Getty, Corbis, Alamy and others. NONE of them “take copyright”. They act as agents and take a % of the image sale. The photographer ALWAYS retains copyright.

    And they ARE ‘easy to work with’. If you have half a brain-cell anyone can make images that can pass their Quality Control easily. Digital photography is now as easy as it’s ever been. If you can’t take a good picture with a modern digital camera and all the software available now you should take up another hobby.

    1. Matthew Teller

      Thanks Dave. Benji – over to you?

  9. Benji Lanyado

    Hey Dave – yep, I think you’re right. While there are and were examples of larger agencies insisting on exclusivity and copyright retention in the past, and smaller agencies insisting on copyright so they could sell their collections in full to larger ones, with hindsight I realise this is now happening less, so I’m happy to retract the “increasingly” bit.

    But the rest I stand by, and it’s a significantly larger systemic failure. The image industry stands alone in its absurd middleman rake. You have to go a pretty long way until you find another industry that comes anywhere near the 74% average – Group deals is the next highest I believe – Groupon take 40%, Apple takes 30% from its App Store, but newer online marketplaces take significantly less – AirBnb take 11% for example.

    If the industry was to be started all over again, today, it would look very little like it does now. That’s what Picfair is doing. Creating a way for anyone to sell an image to anyone, fairly. Facilitating this transaction should never command the majority of the money spent.

    By the sounds of it you are a very talented, experienced photographer and are able to make a good living through your work in spite of this royalty cut, which is fantastic. But many others – especially those dipping their feet in the industry for the first time – are not able to do this, and are amazed at the royalty status quo.

    Happy to debate this further, as a lot has changed since I did this interview – Matthew, perhaps we could do a follow up?? Picfair has come a long way, and has barely even started!

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