June 25, 2007 3:10 PM PDT

Corbis' microstock site lets photographers set fee

Corbis' microstock site lets photographers set fee
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Corbis on Monday launched its own "microstock" site, following its two biggest rivals and several smaller ones into the domain of Web sites where customers can buy images inexpensively.

The site, called SnapVillage, differs from several of its rivals by letting photographers set their own prices from a range of options: $1, $5, $10, $25 or $50. The company hopes that choice, along with flexible but easy search tools, will encourage photographers to contribute and customers, such as ad agencies, to buy.

"We've given photographers more of a reason to come to our site because of simplicity and empowerment," said Adam Brotman, Corbis vice president of networks. One element of simplicity is a "snappyness" rating of each photo, a score influenced not only by Corbis' in-house reviewers but also by community factors including comments, download rates and member-submitted keyword tags.

The microstock phenomenon grew from the arrival of legions of digital photography enthusiasts willing to sell photos for less than the price of a candy bar; the availability of relatively inexpensive Internet infrastructure; and the large number of customers who want to add some eye-grabbing imagery to ads, blogs, PowerPoint presentations and annual reports.

Corbis is entering the market late. Jupiterimages and Getty Images acquired microstock sites of their own--Stockxpert and iStockphoto, respectively. There are also a host of independent competitors such as Fotolia--which also lets photographers set their own prices--and Shutterstock.

But Gary Shenk, who'll take over as Corbis' new chief executive next week, has said he believes the microstock market is still young and that the relatively well-known Corbis name will help the company's microstock offering start up quickly.

Corbis, founded and 100 percent owned by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, has yet to become profitable, but SnapVillage is part of the Seattle-based company's effort to improve its finances.

SnapVillage customers can buy images one at a time or through a subscription plan that costs $199 for 30 days, with a maximum of 25 image downloads per day. Photographers, who get 30 cents for an image sold through a subscription regardless of the price they sell it for on its own, may select whether each of their images is available through the subscription plans.

Dan Heller, a photography consultant and author of the Photography Business Blog, believes the subscription and standalone image sales will split into separate businesses at SnapVillage. Because the subscription sale would mean 30 cents in royalties, but a 30 percent cut of a $50 would mean $15 in royalties, photographers aren't likely to put the same image up for sale both as subscription and as standalone.

"Regardless of what price the photographer gives, why would someone pay a per-image fee if they can simply use the one-time fee of the subscription service and get that same image, plus 750 more images?" Heller asked. "This not only puts a top-end price on what the photographer can charge, but puts downward pressure on perception of value because that $199 subscription just lurks out there."

The result, he predicted: "a natural bifurcation of two kinds of photographers, and hence, two kinds of businesses...I suspect this model won't last long before we see major revisions in pricing policies."

SnapVillage is in beta testing but should be out "in a couple months," Brotman said. Currently anyone can upload photos, but only U.S. residents may purchase them; SnapVillage will expand to international buyers in coming months.

Regardless of what price a photographer sets, what resolution is downloaded, or how popular a photographer's images are, the photographer gets 30 percent of the sale price, he added. That's generally in line with rivals; iStockphoto starts at 20 percent but can increase to 40 percent for popular photographers who sell their work only through iStockphoto.

Corbis seeded the site with about 10,000 images to get things rolling. "I do believe by the end of this year we will be in the hundreds of thousands, and I don't believe it'll be too long before we get to a million," Brotman said.

Also in the future, Brotman added, SnapVillage plans to expand to "editorial" content for use by news media. Such material faces looser restrictions on reproducing recognizable human faces.

"We think there's a really interesting opportunity to have a separate editorial-use workflow, but we didn't want to launch in beta," Brotman said. "Keep an eye out...It's on the table."

SnapVillage today sells JPEG images, Flash animations and vector art that can be reproduced at different scales. In the future, Brotman said, the company plans to offer audio and video footage.

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