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Stocksy aims to bring the soul back into stock photography

iStockphoto founder Bruce Livingstone is trying again with the stock-art business -- this time with a startup focusing on photographers, not profits.

An image for sale on Stocksy
An image for sale on Stocksy screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Bruce Livingstone, founder of the iStockphoto site that grew from a small stock-art community to a multimedia juggernaut, is launching a competitor called Stocksy United today that he hopes will bring the business back to its roots.

Stocksy is a startup, but it won't attract venture capital, won't be acquired by a larger rival, and doesn't have an exit strategy. Instead, it's a cooperative run by its own photographers who get paid a relatively high percentage of the royalties generated by each image sale: 50 percent. On top of that, photographers split the profits left over at the end of each year, Livingstone said in an interview.

The idea, he said, is to attract top-shelf photographers who are unhappy with expanding photographer competition and shrinking payouts from the major sites.

Stocksy United founder Bruce Livingstone
Stocksy United founder Bruce Livingstone Stocksy

"It's foolish to launch company with the big boys out there, but I think it's the time is right for a soulful company like this to be created," Livingstone said.

Indeed, it was the unceasing litany of complaints by photography contacts that brought him back out of "semi-retirement" in Los Angeles. He's now moved back to Canada, whose laws are well set up for cooperatives more commonly found uniting farmers than photographers.

"Photographers kept coming to see me, coming to visit, telling me how bad the industry was, telling me they were disenfranchised, telling me about the competition, this sea of images. That, combined with declining royalties -- they were super frustrated," he said. "They were looking to me to get back in the game. I just couldn't ignore it anymore."

He's not aiming to conquer the world -- something iStock did as it pioneered the "microstock" market that exploded when an army of digital photographers mobilized to sell photos globally on the Internet. That growth accelerated dramatically when Getty Images acquired iStock for $50 million in 2006. This time around, Livingstone is looking for "sustainability," concentrating on a high-end foothold.

"We'll be a success with just one half to one percent of the market right now," he said.

He's got 220 photographers on board today, currently uploading about 1,000 images a day, with images priced between $10 and $100. Five employees are on the payroll so far, including iStock's original site programmer and Livingstone's own wife, who built iStock's image-review system. Livingstone says he expects to grow to perhaps 500 photographers this year, but has no plans to become a massive company with thousands and thousands of contributors.

But premium photo collections of photos are not an easy way to stand out from the stock-art crowd. With millions upon millions of images available, stock-art sites use them as one way to try to make their selection stand out -- and to make more money on each sale.

And Shutterstock, which has built a publicly traded company on its stock-photo sales, has just revealed that it's planning a premium photo collection called Offset. "With Offset, we're disrupting the high-end marketplace," said Chief Executive Jon Oringer in an introductory video.

Livingstone was scornful of the stock-art industry's premium push. "They're moving stuff that was in regular collections into premium collections and jacking up the price," he said. Stocksy is aiming for the high end of the market, but "we're kind of reducing the price again."

Stocksy has won over got some notable names on its 220-member contributor pool -- Tyler Stalman, Sean Locke, Trey Ratcliff, and Thomas Hawk, for example. They're all "reputable photographers," and part of Stocksy's sales pitch is that its quality control means customers won't have to waste time sifting the wheat from the chaff.

"Every single picture is useful and licenseable and authentic and not silly," Livingstone said. By comparison, on the ocean of stock-art images for sale today, "you get everything. Pirates in funny glasses, bad lighting, terrible pictures that are not curated and selected," he said.

A range of photos for sale at Stocksy United. The startup plans to add vector art soon.
A range of photos for sale at Stocksy United. The startup plans to add vector art soon. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The company plans to start selling vector-art illustrations soon, too, Livingstone said, but video footage is not a priority at least for now.

Locke got into a tiff with iStock when photographers discovered Getty had licensed their images to Google for use on its online services like Google Docs and Google Slides and objected to how they'd been treated. (iStock said the company had persuaded Google to include a notice that the images may not be used elsewhere and told its photographers it's working to get Google to incorporate image metadata that can, for example, include photographer copyright information.)

iStock ended up booting Locke off the site.

That incident helped persuade Hawk, a prolific and vocal photographer, to quit on his own. "When you start to see a company fighting with its contributors, banning contributors, even firing contributors, it makes me feel like maybe it's time to go. This doesn't feel like a healthy 'relationship' any more. Paying me 20 percent and keeping 80 percent already felt a little insulting, but I think we deserve to be treated better," he said in a blog post about quitting Getty today.

Livingstone said he has no regrets selling iStockphoto to Getty, which fired him in 2009. But he's still emotional about what it's become.

"I think iStock thinks about the numbers quarter to quarter and hitting revenue targets, but don't think they think about anything else...It makes me sad to see what they did to it," Livingstone said. "From a pure dollars [perspective], they knocked it out of the park. Wow. Getty grew that business financially...I can't even understand those numbers. It's way too much money. They should have shared it with people instead of cutting everybody's salary. That's what I would have done."

Indeed, with Stocksy, sharing is the very thing he's trying to do.

"Our function is to create a sustainable career," he said. "We're almost like a nonprofit. At the end of the year, we take all the profits and distribute them. We're not lining our pockets with cash."