Interviews

Pixels Wants to Put Image Licensing Back in the Hands of Photographers

by Laura C. Mallonee on April 16, 2014

An image by Johanne Swanepoel, available on Pixels.com (Courtesy of Pixels.com)

An image by Johanne Swanepoel, available on Pixels.com (all images courtesy Pixels.com)

When Getty Images decided to offer some 35 million images for free noncommercial use last month, the move wasn’t exactly popular with photographers. In part, it was perceived by many as an admission of defeat for the company after it realized it couldn’t possibly police the millions who violate image copyrights. But it was also just another in a long series of kicks to the groin for photographers and how they’re compensated for their work. In the past few years, the profit photographers keep from images sold by major image licensing corporations has dwindled to a pathetic 20%.

Now, Pixels.com, a spinoff of the print-on-demand website Fine Art America — is aiming to put licensing back into the hands of photographers. The site allows users to price their own work and manage the licensing themselves. While it sounds ideal, we couldn’t help being a little skeptical, so we sat down with founder Sean Broihier for some answers.

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Laura C. Mallonee: How does Pixels.com work?

Sean Broihier: The pricing structure is very simple. Photographers choose what kind of image they want to sell. They can choose between royalty free and rights managed. When you pick rights managed, there are all kinds of licenses that we’ve created to choose from: there’s one for selling book covers, another for selling TV commercials, and things of that nature. They also get to decide how much they want to charge for each of those licenses.

A photograph by Tim Gainey, available on Pixels.com

A photograph by Tim Gainey, available on Pixels.com

LM: How exclusive is it?

SB: It’s free to join. We have a small barrier to entry. You can upload your first 25 images for free, and if you want to go beyond that it’s $30. That’s to stop us from becoming a Flickr, for lack of a better word.

LM: How do you ensure quality?

SB: Because we’re selling images, and because we’re a very social site, our algorithms do a very wonderful job of bringing the best images to the top and pushing the crummy images down to the bottom.

LM: How are you going to compete against the Shutterstocks and Getty Images of the world?

SB: If you go to Getty Images and try to purchase the largest, royalty-free image of a lion, it’s going to cost you between $600 and $700. The artist on Getty keeps roughly 20% of that, so the artist will earn $120. If he took the same picture to Pixels.com and set the price at $120, we would take that cost and multiple for our 30%, it’s going to sell on our site for $156. The image itself, for the buyer, is 25% of the price. It’s because Getty’s trying to keep 80% for themselves, and Pixels.com is only keeping 28% for ourselves. Even if the photographer wants to go to Pixels.com and charge $400, we’ll sell the image for $520. That’s still less than what it sells on Getty.

LM: Why do you think photographers are being paid so little?

SB: There’s no central union that represents artists and photographers who stand up for their rights. Once they get walked over, there’s no Al Sharpton out there to stand up for them. If you’re a multi-billion-dollar company like Shutterstock, and you’ve been paying your contributors 40% for years and years, and for whatever reason your sales have plateaued, well your investors always want to see growth. It’s too tempting and too easy to say to your contributors, ‘Hey, we’re not going to pay you 40% anymore, we’re going to pay you 20%.’ Just like that, you’ve added an additional 20% of profit. Your stock price goes through the roof, and your investors are happy. The artists and photographers just take it. So Shutterstock does it, and then in lockstep Getty does it, and everyone’s selling images now for cheap. Now we’ve created the alternative.

LM: How will Pixels.com avoid that dilemma?

SB: We’re 100% self-funded. We’ve never raised money, we have no investors and no board of directors. I built the business back in 2006 and I’m still the programmer and owner. The only companies that can come out and pay a nice, living wage to the photographers are companies like ours that are self-funded and don’t have to answer to investors. We’re happy paying 77% of the sale to photographers, because that’s what they deserve, and we don’t have Wall Street looking over our shoulders and asking, ‘Why not only pay them 20% like everyone else?’

LM: How does Pixels.com compare to other new image licensing websites like Stocksy?

SB: What differentiates us is that we’re launching as a spinoff of a site that already gets 10 million unique visitors per month. We’ve got an enormous email list that we’ve built since 2006, and we have the opportunity to announce, ‘Hey, we’re now in the licensing business,’ and email blast that out to millions of people.

Right out of the gun, we’re a major player with a major marketing campaign and the SEO know-how to make sure that in a few months we’re in the top 10 for searches on image licensing and royalty free images.

LM: What’s your strategy for selling rights-managed images?

SB: If I was a buyer, I probably wouldn’t want to buy something that’s restrictive. On the other hand, there are certain artists and photographers who completely refuse to sell anything royalty-free, and that’s why we have flexibility built in and if somebody’s got an incredible image, and the buyer wants it and rights-managed is all the artist is willing to do, at least there’s the option.

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