A little over two years ago I did something which just a few days earlier had seemed unthinkable - I gave up exclusivity with iStock. The issue at the time was the introduction of RCs - a pay cut for contributors thinly disguised as a 'piece-rate' incentive program. I could see no honest, decent reason for cutting the commission paid to contributors - it was well-known that iStock was extremely profitable. Any company that considered making a whopping 60-80% commission in exchange for handling sales of content it does not have to produce itself as 'unsustainable' was no longer to be trusted. I also felt that to accept such treatment would ultimately see the death of the entire industry - if returns to the creators of the content are so diminished as to make it no longer worthwhile to produce such imagery then it is only a matter of time before the whole house of cards falls. Now it seems that as well as demanding an ever-increasing slice of the pie in order to feed corporate greed, iStock/Getty have gone one further and begun selling off the family silver.
By chance a deal struck between Getty and Google was discovered by leading iStock exclusive contributor Sean Locke. Locke found out that 6000 iStock Vetta/Agency images (the highest price point and considered the jewels in any photographers portfolio) were available for use as a kind of 'clip art' on Google drive. Users of that site (formally Google Docs) who wished to insert a photo into their work could search a library of freely available images which included the 6000 from Getty/iStock. Subsequent statements released by iStock have claimed that these images are only available for use in work created by Google drive, but this is not made clear at any point on the Google site. It is also an extremely broad remit and impossible to police.
So effectively what had happened was that 6000 of some of the best images iStock had to offer were now freely available at high resolution sizes on a very popular site. The images had been stripped of all EXIF metadata which might have allowed the user to see that the copyright remained with the photographer, furthering the impression that these were public domain, copyright free, unprotected, free-for-all, help yourself images. Google's own blog talked in terms of having 'crowdsourced' images for use in Google docs, promoting the idea that these had somehow been freely given by willing amateurs.
If these 6000 images are so freely available then they will quickly become familiar - nobody will pay money to download these from a stock site when they can get them for free from Google. Contributors feel, with good reason, that the future earnings potential of these images has been destroyed. It is not unknown for photographers to sell the future rights to an image for a fee - Dreamstime for example offer this as an option on their site and suggest that if willing, the photographer quotes a fee of between $350 and $5000 for this. Getty's own Rights Managed calculator quotes a price of $3,390 for purchase of a comparable licence for one of the images on their site. So what sort of fee did the photographers in the Getty/Google deal receive? Just $6 or $12. As you can imagine, this has caused an uproar. A significant number of unhappy contributors have reached the end of their rope and applied to terminate their exclusivity agreement. I know of some very large names at iStock who have chosen to quietly slip away rather than waste more of their energy fighting this. Other contributors have begun to deleting some or all of their images from sale on iStock's site, others are joining together to launch a class-action lawsuit in an attempt to get the deal overturned or proper compensation paid.
I am not anti-iStock, I used to love that place and I have made a lot of long-lasting friendships there, but I now feel that it is essential for iStock to fail in order to protect the industry as a whole. I know this is a controversial thing to say, but I feel that other agencies are watching this - we have already seen commission cutting shenanigans at Fotolia and 123RF and they won't be the last. Unless we stand up to protect what we have it will be lost in the name of short-term profit for an endless succession of venture capital asset raiders. Simply to get this deal overturned will not be enough - there will be a lot more secretive deals like this done in the future.
Some of the foremost iStock contributors have taken the lead in standing up to iStock in this issue, but it seems they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, as is anyone who produces high-quality content at considerable expense. I don't know what the future holds for their like, but for the rest of us shoot-from-the-hip grab snappers the choice is easier. I hope that more people will make a significant stand against these actions. Money isn't everything after all and it may be necessary to go through some pain and suffer a loss of income in the short term in order to make things better in the long run. Either that or this is the beginning of the end and we are all toast, but I hope not.