Bill Gates on the Future of the Stock Photography Business

StockPhotoTalk | Special Interest Blog: BusinessWeek: Interview With Bill Gates And Steve Davis Of Corbis; Analyst Expects $2 Billion Market To Grow In The Mid-Teens Percent In 2006 Andy Goetze finds the best stock photography news on the internet. If you are interested in it at all I’d highly recommend subscribing to his blog. Bill Gates, as many know, is the principal owner of Corbis, the 2nd largest stock photography company in the world, behind Getty Images. Recently BusinessWeek profiled Corbis and interviewed Gates:

“Many of the companies that were bought to create Corbis came from an industry where people were digging around in photo drawers to find things,” Gates explained. “Now it’s very much an online activity. You can navigate through the pictures according to exactly the characteristics you want.”

Gates says he doesn’t feel threatened by photo-sharing site Flickr or video-sharing site BitTorrent. Some advertisers and publishers have begun using images from those sites or other so-called micropayment sites, where images can be licensed for as little as $1 a pop. So far, these sites haven’t made a noticeable dent in Corbis’ business, and Gates is betting it will stay that way.”

It’s interesting that Bill Gates originally set Corbis up as a company to acquire digital images for the emerging digital home where plasma displays would proliferate and people would need digital art to fill up these displays.

Instead, what has happened is that rather than go to a company to “buy” these images for fine plasma art, a revolution of photo sharing has sprung up where the most amazing work is showing up on Flickr, photoblogs and even through tools like Google Images, Yahoo Images and Ask Jeeves Images. As Image Search technology continues to get better and better (and for an example of how good it is getting just check out Flickr’s Explore), the home consumer market will be dominated by these vast ranked libraries of high quality online images.

There are two primary markets still though for home images:

1. Public Domain Fine Art. Obviously anyone who has been to the great museums of the world knows that there are thousands and thousands of amazing paintings that are long past copyright. Although these images are haphazardly digitized at best appearing all over the internet, there is no true central high res database of images, well organized by artist.

Personally I think that this is something that Flickr should pursue. What would need to be done would be for someone to scan fine art books of high quality non copyrighted images. The complete works of Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, should be a Flickrset, the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh, etc.

2. CD based sales of Fine Contemporary Art. Fine Contemporary Art is another huge market. I love contemporary art. Today if I want I can buy a fine art book of the images of Andreas Gursky. The problem though is that I don’t want to take the time to scan the book myself nor do I want to go through the hassle of trying to find high res images of Gursky and rip them from image search. Instead, like I can buy a Gursky book (and perhaps even in companion with the book) I should be able to get a CD of images that I can then load into my Media Center PC to watch. I would gladly pay the high price of an art book to get it in digital form. The opportunity for these sales would be greatest through contemporary art museum gift shops. If I could, for instance, purchase the complete work of Chuck Close in conjunction with the display going on at the MOMA in San Francisco I would. As it is, I can’t and so at best I’ve haphazardly found a few high res images online and put them into a folder that I’ve labeled Chuck Close and can view on my Media Center PC today.

The problem with selling you these images of course is that everyone is scared of piracy and the fear is that by selling me a CD of these high res images it would show up via P2P very shortly. This is a shame though as I’d definitely collect CDs of great contemporary art for display on my plasma.

The other side of the digital image equation though is the stock photography business. And here is where I think Gates is wrong. “”It will be like it is with e-zines and bloggers,” he said. “In photography, you’ll have the whole array of stuff that’s just up there free, and then increasing levels of quality. The whole spectrum is being figured out. We’re at the highest-quality end of the spectrum.””

Today there are three types of stock photography going on.

1. Getty/Corbis/JupiterImages: This is the high end of the market. This is where you pay. For some images you pay more and for some images, especially in the royalty free category, you pay less, but you pay. This is where the stock business is dominated today.

2. Microstock sites (Getty just bought the largest in this space iStockphoto): These are sites that are mass buying amateur images largely for pennies on the dollar and selling them still cheaply and making a spread.

3. Free Images: Creative Commons licensed images haphazardly organized at best but available even for commercial use in some cases for free.

To the degree that the stock world looks like this today, Gates is right. Corbis and Getty have higher quality images and will still dominate due to the quality and organization and right’s clearance of their libraries.

But what if a fourth business model is still out there. Could a company develop a model that significantly undercuts Getty/Corbis on price while still offering a fair price (above pennies) to the amateur and rank, categorize, tag, fav and otherwise present a highly organized terrific library of high quality stock images? What if art directors, marketers, etc. Could peruse libraries of well organized images based on rank and quality, pay $100-$300 per image (substantially less than they do today) and as a bonus find very high quality fresh (art directors love fresh) new amateurs creating what borders on truly fine art photography today and was as good as the pros in almost every ways? Some might say that such a library could not exist… but what if it did?