Almost a decade ago I worked in the tech support/customer service department for a small online stock photo agency named Photodisc. It was a privately owned creative company located in Seattle Washington specializing in stock photos that were high-end yet royalty-free. Soon after starting there, we were acquired by a larger ‘umbrella’ company called Getty Images. At the time Getty had only been recently formed by the acquisition of Tony Stone images, a rights-managed stock photo company that specialized in high-end advertising and editorial photography. Not long after the PhotoDisc merger Getty moved their headquarters to Seattle from London. Over the next two years we were joined by many other smaller stock agencies that all specialized in markets in which Getty wanted control. Eyewire was a royalty-free font and illustration provider, Imagebank was owned by Eastman Kodak and represented one of the largest collections at the time. Swanstock represented art photography used as book covers and or corporate art. There were many, many more (including film, music, etc) after that until after a decade of acquisitions, most recently iStock, Getty now owned the largest image collection in the world. Finally beating out their only real competitor Corbis Images(owned by Bill Gates). For a much more detailed account of Getty’s history, check out this site.
Today we find out that Getty is up for sale. Getty was the first company to license images online but after a decade of climbing to the top their stock has been steadily declining over the past year, by 47% according to the NY Times article. During that time many new stock photo companies have started licensing more and more less expensive royalty-free images(you license the image once and can use as many times as you like model vs. paying for every use as in rights-managed imagery). Also, sights like Alamy.com that allow the photographer to upload already scanned images at will, have opened the market up to a much lower level of quality and cost. A friend of mine that runs a stock photo company has recently been hinting at the fact that the industry was in trouble so I’m not completely surprised that Getty is trying to get out of the game before the whole business model changes once again. Just as when stock photography was born and independent photographers would protest at Getty’s booth at trade shows calling the “end of commissioned photography”, it is once again a time of change. I’m not sure yet exactly how it will turn out but I have a feeling the independent photographer will somehow come out on top.