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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.