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What Stock Photographers Can Learn From Napster

Selling directly to photobuyers is becoming the transaction method of choice for freelance stock photographers. This idea was originally pioneered by Napster, the company that created a way for users to download MP3 music files directly onto their hard drives instead of buying a CD. In essence, Napster cut out the middle man.

Naturally, the music industry was not happy. The Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster in 2000. The RIAA won the case, and Napster closed its doors in 2001.

The idea behind Napster, however, is still very much alive, despite music execs who want to retain their control over the industry.

A Change on the Horizon
The distribution process Napster pioneered paves the way for a new delivery method for photographers, artists, game and apps makers, musicians, and writers who have historically been at the mercy of middle-men to promote and distribute their work.

This move is called peer-to-peer.

Here’s how it works. To get the creative work you’re looking for, you simply circumvent the usual distributor (for photographers, this would be stock photography agencies) and download the file you’re looking for from the supplier’s hard drive.

At first glance, you might think that Napster-sparked free trading of music files would have caused a serious reduction in retail sales. On the contrary, it turned out to be a catalyst.

Studies showed that music sales not only stayed healthy, but improved. The problem was, of course, that the middlemen and some disgruntled music groups took Napster to court and won.

Could that original Napster system work in our industry? What if the process is tweaked to promote photographers who consent to their images being available and traded on-line?

Well, the marketing part already has examples and results. Stock photo agencies like Fotalia and Bigstock practically give pictures away through royalty-free distribution. They have found that such a system both encourages online purchasing, educates buyers toward increased image utilization and fosters their graduating to higher-ticket image purchasing.

Sales Angle
But, wait. If photos are given away practically free, won’t that discourage photographers from making images in the future? If you’re not motivated to create, you won’t create. It’s common sense.

This is a natural reaction. Every time a new technology comes along, the purveyors of the former technology get up in arms and try preventing the new from destroying the old. Radio was going to destroy newspapers. TV was going to destroy radio. Cable TV was going to destroy network TV.

Obviously, this is not the case. Society has taken each new medium in stride, and it’s all the better for it.

The Internet has opened the window for us to see traditional business strategies in new light. The Internet’s peer-to peer possibilities open new distribution doors for creators in all fields.

What it Means for Stock Photographers
For stock photography freelancers, the non-middleman system could work like this. Software known as “digital rights management systems” allows photobuyers to search for a specific picture, download it to their hard drive and purchase the photo.

The fee might be low (like with RF photography), but the volume could be high (several visitors a day). The bottom line is that pictures that otherwise would languish in your files gathering dust will generate activity and sales for you.

This would open new possibilities in specialized markets for freelancers who aren’t part of an old-model stock photo agency. Stock photographers would deal directly with buyers.

The peer-to-peer system probably won’t do away with the big boys. They would evolve into a pay-per-use or subscription-based model, both of which could survive.

This former Napster (peer-to-peer) system would open a new door where the conglomerates would continue to collect and sell their generic images on a similar basis.

Internet technology today is too powerful, too ambitious, for lawmakers to regulate freedom of exchange of music, images, and graphic files. Eventually the dust will settle, and individual freelance stock photographers are bound to come out in an even better position than was available

[via Black Star Rising]

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