For Every Action There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction

For Every Action There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction

Over the last few months there have been a number of very good conversations regarding image management and how we might track and monetize usage online. As I listen to each of the proposed solutions I can’t help but think of them as part of larger conversations.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the issues of distribution and monetization, but do hope the following will help inform the discourse. My goal is not to state whether one solution is better than another, but to raise questions and present information for us to consider as discuss how to manage, distribute and monetize our imagery in the future.

Beware of What You Ask For

Two years ago I wrote a post about Wikileaks, the release of governmental cables many felt illustrated the freedom and the power of the internet to provide transparency and distribute information. What isn’t been frequently discussed is the natural governmental response to those leaks, which is to create greater restrictions on the flow of data and build choke points into the system that will allow a country to restrict the spread of information in the future. Hence a gesture made to facilitate the flow of information has resulted in a loss of the same.  Frequently the response to an action is the opposite of its intended consequence. We need to consider these long-term and sometimes unexpected responses as we make choices as an industry and individuals moving forward.


SOPA was the acronym for the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that simply put, would have stopped copyright infringement by cracking down on sites that allow infringement.  In general media companies were in support of the bill and tech companies  were against it. There was a lot of money and power behind the initiative to limit online piracy, yet it lost. Many consumers were happy with the outcome as it meant greater individual privacy and a greater access to content.
I wonder, as we work to build methods of tracking the use of images and other information if we, or the general public, are ready to give up the individual rights to privacy that we hold dear. Are we ready to have our every action on the web tracked and logged by a single corporation, agency or government entity? Are we willing to pay for every bit of information, for every image or video we view?  Some would argue that this is already happening; others would say that the failure of pay walls illustrates the public’s lack of desire to pay for certain content. What will win, privacy, the free flow of information, or commerce?

Proposal for United Nations Control Over the Internet

There is a currently a United Nations conference happening in which participants ate discussing the possibility of United Nations control over the internet. As intellectual property owners this may be a disturbing and substantive change. In virtually all of our lectures and discussions we address rights and usage though the very western perspective of intellectual property rights and ownership.  In large portions of the world these right are not recognized or do not exist. I was at an economic forum in Russia two years ago at which a regional government official simply laughed at the idea of intellectual property rights.

In a world in which many individuals hunger for access to information and countries desire the ability to compete on a global scale, in a shift to UN control we may see the rights of intellectual property holders become diminished.  Representatives of countries who have a need for free access to intellectually property may be loath to defend the rights of content creators.


ASCAP is a not for profit performance rights organization (or PRO) that protects its members musical copyrights and collects licensing fees for usage.  They license over 11,500 commercial and 2,000 non commercial radio stations and partner with over 100 PRO’s in other countries.

Could this model work for photographers? Possibly, but there are fundamental differences in the way our businesses work. The first issue centers around the importance of an individual work.  In the music industry large amounts of money and usage concentrated in a relatively small group of popular songs, this is not the case for even the most popular still images. Video is another story, the popularity of a video can be similar to a hit song, so this may be an area where we are able to develop and distribute revenue streams over the long run. The second issue revolves around the shear number of images that exist online. While there may be thousands of songs created every week, more than 250 million images are uploaded on a daily basis to Facebook alone.  To date there are over 15 billion images on Facebook, making it the largest image sharing site in the world.  How would an agency manage and track the shear volume of imagery that is moving into the world, commercial or otherwise?  We might argue that only “professional” or ‘commercial” images need to be tracked, but that ignores some of the larger questions of usage that are facing our industry.

This is not to say that a PRO for image creators is impossible, but it is important to consider the substantively different issues an image based PRO would face as opposed to a PRO such as ASCAP.

What About an Image Registry? 

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the building of an image registry that might function in some manner like ASCAP. The PLUS coalition is working hard to provide a structure that will work for businesses and photographers alike. This is an effort that has been supported by ASMP and it would be great to see them succeed.

I wonder though about the number of photographers who will participate in a registry of any sort. Copyrighting your imagery is one of the easiest things that a photographer can do, yet only a small fraction of the images created are copy righted. Past efforts such as the photographers Coop failed to draw substantial interest, as have other initiatives. Are we too comfortable functioning as individuals, and our goals too disparate to come together for the good of our industry?

Given the hundreds of millions of images that are uploaded on a yearly basis how can we expect aggregate enough images to make a difference? If we had all of the images in the copy right office in the registry would that be enough? If the registry had all of the images in Getty as well would do the trick? At what point do you gain critical mass? Are you as a content creator willing to be invested in a program such as PLUS? Please take a look at the web site and make yourself aware of your options. (

What About The “Amateurs”?

This is the big question; what about the non-professionals? What about the people who shoot jobs and sell images who would not naturally participate in a professional registry or program?  How do we include people who are comfortable with their images being used for free? How do we educate the general public and help them understand the value of their imagery? The mass market has always driven photography, how do we begin to influence that market?

Every Camera Has A Code?

Perhaps the solution resides with the camera makers, and not Adobe, who can imbed a searchable personal code into each image when it is taken as opposed to placing information into metadata that is frequently lost.  If your personal code was literally built into the pixels of every image, then every image taken by a photographer would, in theory, be searchable. Maybe it’s a pipedream, but perhaps it is possible.


As professionals it all comes down to the contracts we sign. If it is easier for Conde Nast to write a blanket contract and not pay for usage on every platform why won’t they do so? If Forbes can develop new revenue streams by owning and relicensing the images through Getty and Corbis why shouldn’t they write that into their contract?  You might argue that morally they should not do so, but as a business with shrinking revenues and more supply than demand it makes sense.

As content providers the questions regarding contracts supersede other questions. We cannot expect these contracts to go away based on their morality or lack thereof. Either work in a unified manner to stop such contracts or begin to develop business models that will function along side them. If we are not going to own our imagery in the future, then we need to consider this entire conversation in a new context.

Follow The Money

Finally, it seems to me that the answer to most of the questions surrounding tracking, distribution and usage will come from those who have the money and the influence to dictate the terms. Given the explosion of imagery on multiple platforms, the possible revenue stream from the licensing of those images is too seductive for a company to resist. We will most likely see a handful of corporations enter the field of image management and utilize it either as a profit center by aggregating small sums over millions of transactions, or as a loss leader to drive consumers to their content.  Governments will also have their say in how our content is distributed and protected.

I don’t believe that photography/videography/image creation, is going away. Nor do I feel that it is or will be impossible to make a living as a photographer, but we do need to decide how we are going to work together to inform each others professional practice, and help drive larger conversations in a manner that will benefit us all.

Our job as content creators and trade organizations is to continue create new partnerships, influence industry decisions, develop new technologies, and find new business models that will allow us to succeed in this environment. At some point the use of imagery will be better monetized, the bottom line for content creators is who will be doing this, and what our role will be in helping develop the solutions.  Given the information above, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thomas Werner

Lecturer, Educator, Curator, Consultant

Thomas Werner Projects on (launching in the new year)