Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Flickr Debate

Superbad: Is it "real" or is it Getty?

Getty Images, one of the largest purveyors of digital photos for publication, has entered into an agreement with Yahoo. Getty will pay Yahoo for the right to trawl the Flickr site and invite photographers to participate in a program where their personal images could be licensed and sold. Those who are included in the program would get paid at the same rates that Getty pays contracted professional photographers. (According to the New York Times, Getty charges between $500 and $600 for “rights managed” images, which are used by a customer exclusively for a period of time. Photographers get between 30 percent and 40 percent of that revenue. The company charges about $250 for non-exclusive use of images; photographers get 20 percent.)

This sparked a heated debate over the rights of a commercial company to access non-commercial content. First, there's a fear over the further distillation of the authentic. Jonathan Klein, co-founder and chief executive of Getty Images, told the New York Times that they need what Flikr has to offer “because the imagery is not shot for commercial services, [so] there is more authenticity. Advertisers are looking for authenticity.”

Getty is banking on people's desire to turn their personal images into capital for commercial purposes. Imagine your baby's photo becoming advertising fodder for Pampers. Or, more likely, background for someone's annual report. Will this change the spirit of Flickr and the nature of the posts it receives? If we know Getty is watching, will it impact the "authenticity" of our personal photography?

This partnership is particularly pissing off professional photographers. The web comments associated with that NYTime's article offer a snapshot of the debate. A man named Steve wrote:
Why would professional photographers bother with Getty if they’re going to be considered, and treated, no better than hobbyists? Flickr undoubtedly hosts some quality content, but for Getty to engage in wholesale trawling of random images does a disservice to the professionals who expend their own funds to produce content worthy of being hosted by Getty.
To which one commenter responded:
Steve, I hear you, but I’m afraid this is the way it is all going. “Amateur” is the new pro.
This last comment hits the true nerve. The professionals may claim consternation at the prospect of amateurs muddying the creative waters, but the heart of this debate is something more. It is not the perceived caliber of the photographer that is the real issue, rather it is the fact that independent creative work may be further devalued. This move by Getty is about the broader revolution in the way the world does business.

This may seem the very essence of creative democracy: work hard, focus your camera, post your work, get reward in the form of compensation. Talent is talent, whether you self-identify as a hobbyist or a professional. But this partnership represents a more insidious truth about creativity in our culture today: a company as mammoth and profitable as Getty can mine a free source, pay a minimal fee for photo useage, but never have to engage in broader support of artists (healthcare, for example). Getty made $807 million in revenue in 2006 according to their annual report, yet employed just 1,800 people worldwide. The bulk of their profit was made off of workers paying their own way—from camera gear and processing, to health insurance and general overhead.

One third of American workers are freelancers (myself included), and that number is growing. As we continue to move from a salaried economic model to a freelance model, we have to wonder who will look out for our economic wellbeing. The Flickr hobbyists may not know how to read a contract, advocate for the appropriate copyrights, or understand a fair wage.

The Freelancer's Union has gone a long way to try to shed light on this growing reality. They operate under the slogan: "Working for the radical notion of fairness." And the Getty/Flickr debate is about much more than just professional territorialism. It is about our ability to advocate for creative rights and fairness in an increasingly virtual workplace.

Interestingly, Getty itself advocates for professionalism and expertise, and takes aim at the very amateurs it is now looking to hire. In its "About Getty Images" section of the Web site, the company tells us what sets it apart:

"Experience. Our photographers are subject-matter specialists with years of experience, not generalists—a distinction that helps ensure that our images capture defining moments and deep insights."