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?