HP Snapfish Goes into Stock Image Business

Last week HP and LicenseStream, a startup formerly known as ImageSpan, launched Snapfish Stock Images, a stock image service integrated with HP’s Snapfish image sharing site.  LicenseStream handles rights management, royalty compensation, and unauthorized use detection for professional and amateur photographers who wish to upload and monetize their images on the site.

The wall between the major photo-sharing sites and online stock image agencies has been breached.  This is a watershed moment in the evolution of the digital image market, and potentially the beginning of a breakthrough for photographers who are despairing of dwindling opportunities for monetizing their content.

Snapfish and LicenseStream’s scheme for uploading and monetizing images is analogous to Scribd‘s scheme for monetizing documents.  You can upload images and decide whether you want to charge for them or give them away.  If you want to charge, you get a percentage of the purchase price that is considerably higher than what you would get with a traditional stock image agency like Getty Images or Corbis.  It will no longer be necessary for photographers to upload images to photo-sharing sites merely in hopes of getting promotional exposure so that maybe someday an image buyer will go over to Getty or Corbis to license their work for money.

At the heart of this service is LicenseStream’s scheme for license management, royalty compensation, rights management, and detection of unauthorized uses.  LicenseStream uses Digimarc’s image watermarking technology to embed watermarks in images so it can detect them on the Internet.  LicenseStream alerts the content licensor when it finds unauthorized uses of content and provides a choice of actions, such as offering a license, assertion of copyrights, or allowing the usage.

Services like this exist today for text content from Attributor and iCopyright; one difference with LicenseStream is that it uses watermarking instead of the pattern-matching schemes, akin to fingerprinting for audiovisual content types, that Attributor and iCopyright use.  Other vendors like PicScout do the usage tracking but not the license management.

The advantage of watermarking over fingerprinting is that it is guaranteed to be accurate in identifying images, whereas fingerprinting is ultimately an “educated guess.”  The disadvantage of watermarking is that the watermark has to be inserted into the content before it’s published. But LicenseStream’s integration with Snapfish makes that straightforward; the content can be watermarked as part of the upload process.  LicenseStream is in the process of expanding its solution to work with other types of content, which would mean integrating content identification technologies for those other content types.

Getty and Corbis became a de facto duopoly over the past few years as the online stock image market began to shrivel up.  The tipping point came in 2008 when Getty acquired JupiterImages from Jupitermedia, itself a rollup of over a dozen small online stock image sites.  The only other stock image sites are small boutiques that cater to special interests.

HP’s move is at once a democratization of the stock image industry and a potential blow to the duopoly that currently runs it. It’s also an admission by one of the major image-sharing sites not only that there is money to be made from the millions of images that flow through it daily but that it’s the right thing to do for content creators.

It is refreshing to see one of the big three image-sharing services finally step into the world of paid content.  It doesn’t detract from the experience of everyday users sharing personal images, and it should raise the overall quality of images on the site, thereby giving Snapfish a competitive advantage.  Why haven’t any of the big image-sharing sites done this before?  The technology to do so has existed for years.  It has to be a sign that the tech industry is maturing its attitudes about copyright and paying content creators.

So how about it, Picasa (Google) and Flickr (Yahoo)?  Will you follow?


  1. Flickr has been doing something with Getty for some 2.5 years now; see http://www.flickr.com/gettyimages/

    That requires an invitation and Getty vets images before adding them to their collection. This is not unlimited like Snapfish, but that may be good for serious amateur photographers: it’s hard to sell your stuff in an unlimited sea of snapshots. While Getty’s percentages are lower, a payment to the photographer depends on three factors: 1) does a picture get sold at all? 2) if so, at what price? and 3) what percentage does the photographer get?

    By the way, there are tools to find reuse of pictures even if they are not watermarked – TinEye is pretty impressive.

  2. Hi Rob,

    That’s right, I wrote about this when it happened, http://www.drmwatch.com/ocr/article.php/3758161. I’d argue that it’s really not the same thing. It’s still Getty controlling what gets licensed and the terms of licensing. In fact, it’s just a somewhat more automated version of Getty cherry-picking photos from Flickr on which it thinks it can make money. It’s not democratizing anything, as Snapfish and LicenseStream are; in fact, it’s just the opposite – strengthening Getty’s market position. In fact I’d go further and say that the Getty/Flickr deal was probably designed with forestalling something like Snapfish/LicenseStream in mind.

    You’re also right in that TinEye uses image fingerprints to detect reuse. It’s in the same vein as PicScout, which I mentioned in the article. (In fact, I believe that PicScout uses both fingerprinting and watermarking techniques. PicScout works with Digimarc too.)

  3. Thanks Bill, no disagreement here that they’re different … Flickr’s program is a bit halfway IMO; it’s certainly lower-threshold than “regular” Getty. Photographers can submit pictures of their own choice with Getty accepting/rejecting, and Getty invites pictures with the photographer accepting/rejecting. Also, in Flickr/Getty universe, Getty determines when releases are required; I couldn’t quite understand from Snapfish’s terms if they would enforce anything, or just leave it to the submitter and buyer. This is important for serious commercial use. Another difference is that Snapfish is non-exclusive, while Getty requires exclusivity (except for a few personal use exceptions).

    So on first blush, the programs look somewhat complementary to me – Snapfish for more informal use, and Getty for heavier commercial use (I think I even saw a clause that Snapfish images could not be used for ads, which is a large source of Flickr/Getty revenue.). I’d be very interested to see pay-out comparisons when Snapfish has run for a while.

  4. Rob,

    Oooh, good catch. You’re absolutely right: section 3 of the Snapfish Stock Images EULA forbids use of images in advertising and other uses common to commercial image buyers. In fact, the licensable uses appear to stop short at “small business” or “local” uses.

    In other words, this is just a toe dipped in the water.

    Too bad.

  5. […] HP Snapfish Goes into Stock Image Business « Copyright and …Upload pictures to Snapfish. Upload photos circled in red. Method 1: Select upload photos from your … […]

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