Monday, December 7, 2009

One-Stop Shopping for Photo Buyers - Too Complex and Fractured

One of the questions that continues to surface like so much floatsam and jetsam on the sea of discourse about photography licensing, is why there isn't one centralized location to license images. Dan Heller recently tried to answer the question in his blog post here - Why there's no one-stop shop for photo buyers - (11/29/09), and he compares the business of photography to that of electronics, suggesting that the reason that there is a "viable, stable market for electronics (unlike photos) is because there are mechanisms in place that help establish price points, distributors, manufacturers, and so on. In short, it's a mature industry." There are two problems with that position - #1, photography has been in the marketplace for far and away longer than electronics even existed, and further - is is extremely easy to search for electronics because they have model numbers. It is exceptionally easy to compare two products with the same model numbers, and to enumerate even the most nuanced of differences between models when there is even one or two characters that change (example: Nikon D3 and Nikon D3x, or Canon 5D as compared to the Canon 5D II). Even though, if you don't know exactly what you are looking for, there is a very limited universe of variations on each type of electronics. However, if you try to search for a "cell phone cover" you are hosed. 75 millions results. Iphone cover: 110,000,000 results.

The problem is the nature of the medium. Not the maturity of the industry.

In photography, search is most often not for a particular object or product, but for a concept, which may be expressed by the state of a particular object.

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For example, If you want to find a dog photo, not a particular photo but a photo that expresses a certain concept, there is no possible answer (other than wading) but reliance on keywords. And when you do that search, if the results have not been edited for quality, you are going to waste time wading through though thousands of images to find a gem. Supplementary keywords added by viewers might improve keywording accuracy, however, it will be decades - at least - before a computer can parse the difference between a person smiling and showing their teeth - and that same person with a angry teeth-barring scowl, not to mention the micro-facial-expressions that differentiate happiness as compared to attraction.

Visual search can help with color, orientation, pattern, but not concept.

Image recognition can help with finding an exact image if you already have one, or an image with similarly structured feature points if you already have the image that you are looking for.

Object recognition can help with finding photographs of clearly delineated, unambiguously rendered objects, such as a bicycle, but will have a tough time distinguishing between a terrier and a cat. This will improve with time, but it takes a pair of eyes and a brain to distinguish subtleties, and this will not change. A combination of object recognition and contextual search will yield better results than either type of search alone.

But if you are conducting a search at a search engine like google, the results are images IN USE, not images FOR SALE. Big difference.

The problem is, there is almost always, as those attempting to solve licensing problems, a failure to recognize the fundamental differences between different types of products, and different types of intellectual property.

Searching for music is easier than searching for photos because there are relatively *few songs*. Searching for music -- a "mature" industry -- is a big headache, if you don't know the artist or the name of the song, but are just looking for a song that expresses a certain concept. However, lyrics can be of some assistance, beats per minute, genre, and so on. Yet, in the end, to be able to actually experience - by listening - to a song, will provide you with the final answer. So too, by seeing concepts in images, you really do have to either see it, or have had someone see it and keyword in conceptual keywords.

Heller, among others, suggest that even the big fish (Getty/Corbis/etc) can't/won't even attempt to solve these problems, because their results are absent images they don't represent. Yet, as noted above, it's more than that - these results would not include images that are for sale, yet not in a stock agency or indexed by Google.

Further, the licensing of images is a challenge too. If I told you that someone needed an aerial photograph of a football stadium, but they only wanted 200 copies for a printed brochure, how would you price that? Well, it's one thing if the brochure is for a local realtor to show how protected a home's traffic access is to the seasonal traffic jams on nearby roads, and completely another if that brochure will be what sells the NFL owners on having the next Super Bowl at that stadium.

Photography (and illustrations, for that matter) will continue to be far too complex and fractured an industry for there to be any one place to centralize the licensing of it

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Taylor Davidson said...

1. The length of time a market is not necessarily relevant to how mature it is; the rates of change of technological innovation and commodization are far more important.

2. Yes, searching photos is "complex" because the meta-data behind photos (and I'm including "concept" and "feel" as meta-data) is still relatively expensive to access, process and structure by most current search methods.

But technology will create better solutions to that problem; and as it does, the economics of search will change.

But the core issue is this: what does "one-stop shopping" really mean? Does it mean all the images are stored in one warehouse? Or does it mean that just one search engine can search all warehouses? Very different scenarios; and while today we have many different warehouses of images, it's not a stretch to imagine that we could have many, many more warehouses all accessible from a single "one-stop shopping" search and licensing portal.

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