Oct 012009

I should start this post by stating outright that this differs from my usual writing about free software. Free culture is a useful thing, but not – I believe – a moral imperative. While I think it’s outright wrong to “own” software, there is no rip-off to the public in owning the copyright to a picture.
I am writing therefore, not as a “though shalt” but rather as a “I think it would be good for you if” perspective here.

Now, photographers through the decades since it came to exist, have relied on a few business models to survive, the most basic was a service industry – I’ll come take wedding pictures that will actually be very good. Most professional photographers both hobbyist and full-time still make most of their money this way.
Others included art photography, generally the prints were hung in galleries and sold like paintings, it was always a smaller market and a harder sell than paintings, but some got quite rich.
A lot did “work-for-hire”, they worked for a newspaper or a magazine and shot news photos and photos of this or that, for a job, they got paid a salary – and their employers owned the copyright. The best of these would go freelance, and build up a portfolio of great pictures – to which they would sell the publication rights for big money.
Whether they were plain paparazi or deep investigative journalists or combined both into art as the best did, their portfolio was their livelihood.

But those portfolios are losing value – fast. Stock photography is just not as rare as it once was, and the stock-photo sites out there – well, if you don’t sell a massive amount, you’ll never make any money by joining in. The world has changed, and photographers will have to change with it if their artform is to survive.

The reason is simple: print-media is dying, news is becoming cheap and the new frontiers for it is low-margin, that means the money the market for print-photography is not only shrinking but their potential income from using it is getting smaller – so they will pay less, and less, and less.

So how can photographers position themselves to make money in the internet-age ? I think the creative-commons provides the answer neatly supplied. I put all my own online photos under it’s most liberal version – the attribution-share-alike license, but there is also a “no-commercial” and “no-commercial-share-alike” variant which may make more sense to some.
Essentially – the art galleries where modern photographers display are online – it’s flickr and photobucket and facebook galleries. This is where people see our work, but what they see online is not print quality, a smaller print-market is not a non-existent print-market and the market for things like coffee-table books won’t go away.

Those uses require the high-quality copies – which only I have, so if I ever get approached for a print-copy, I can negotiate, the rights on the web-version is fine – because frankly, it’s only good enough for the web. The web may get better and handle better pictures over time – but we don’t need to care, if that’s your market, nothing stops you sticking to “less-than-print-quality-online”. But being CC-licensed allows depending on the type of license you use, various things which normal copyright prohibits – things that get your name out there.

If you’re a wedding-photographer type, then it’s to your own advantage to have an online portfolio showing off your work – it will get you, your next commision. Using a CC-license can increase the chances of a potential customer seeing your work. If you are an art photographer or a journalist photographer, the CC-license gets your message out, gets it blogged, and when Time magazine covers the big story – they may just order your print-quality version, they’ll want it more because it’s been seen and popular out there. For you, the non-commercial use only is probably a good choice (for me, a hobyist and beginner at that, it doesn’t make sense – the number of times people may make commercial use of my pictures is too few for me to benefit by demanding a share, but those uses will help me grow there).

What each photographer today, ought to be doing, is to sit down and think: “What will my business model be”. Maybe you’ll say “I do this for fun, any money I ever make will be a bonus” – that’s mine, in that case, I suggest the most liberal CC-licensed model out there as it will help you to have the fun you want.
Maybe you want to take pictures for al iving in one of the available markets, well print is now the smallest and shrinking one so aim for others – or at least, for ways to really stand out if you want to go there. Choosing the right license will help a lot, help protect you from being ripped of by corporates who have lots of attorneys and are not artists, but know full well how to make money out of artists.
If you want to do photography for a career, you need to decide how you will fund it. By what means you’ll make your money, there is a lot of future for good freelance photographers but the business models they used even a decade ago won’t work anymore, find your niche, find your marketing method – and pick a license to hit that segment: hard.

In short, CC-licensing doesn’t mean giving up control (and what use is it anyway ? Copyright expires soon enough), it doesn’t mean losing your income – it means enabling new business models that are compatible with a new kind of business world. The big-media companies may not like it – but their customers are voting with their feet. The net offers better media, a lot cheaper, than they ever could. If we want to compete – we have to play in that sphere, and since that sphere has a near-unlimited amount of competition and customer-choice, it means if you want to make money – you not only have to be good – you have to be noticed.
It’s been said that freedom isn’t free. Well free-culture (and yes free-software) most certainly doesn’t mean working for free. In fact, the world is changing to the point where it seems likely that in the not-to-distant future it will be just about the only way to make a living.