Sell your photos via Flickr?

Dan Heller, author of the Photography Business Blog and a longtime watcher of the idea of selling photos on the Internet, observed Tuesday that there's "low-level buzz about Flickr possibly getting into the stock photo business." He concludes, "For Flickr to do it is obvious. Not doing so while they are on top of the game would be suicide."

It's an interesting possibility. With some tweaks to the Web site and an opt-in check box on the image upload page, Yahoo and Flickr photographers could begin selling images to the sorts of folks who need to buy stock art--newspapers, PowerPoint presenters, brochure authors, advertising agencies. All Flickr's metadata and relevance sorting could be converted into a revenue stream shared between Yahoo and the photographers--the practice Getty Images subsidiary iStockphoto uses.

But it's not that simple. For one thing, those who consume stock photos often have different appetites than Flickr members. Stock photo customers generally have little patience with cluttered images, artsy compositions and cell phone shots of friends at the party. Compare the Flickr vs. iStockphoto search results for Valentine's Day, for example. Stock photo customers also often need illustrations for relatively mundane subject matter--for example, they'll consume a seemingly infinite number of pictures of people in business-casual attire sitting in front of computers.

Flickr has a vast collection, though, so it's likely the right image is there if it can be found, and some budget-conscious buyers probably are willing to endure lower search relevance in return for lower price. And the profit motive could encourage Flickr users to adapt to stock photo demands. And even if the right image isn't always there, Flickr could presumably satisfy people's needs some of the time, likely at a cheaper price tag, just as iStockphoto has provided new lower-cost options to traditional stock photo shops such as Getty and Corbis.

But the bigger challenge is intellectual property. iStockphoto, for example, requires users to verify they hold copyright to the images they upload, prohibits visible logos or trademarks, and requires anyone whose face is visible to sign a model release form permitting iStockphoto to sell their likeness. And the company scrutinizes every photo it receives.

What's the likelihood that Yahoo could afford to vet every image Flickr users upload with the option to sell? They could leave the initiative to intellectual property holders themselves, but that approach isn't as likely to sit well with those who want stronger assurances before buying images.

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