iStockphoto Booting Top Photographer in Wake of Getty/Google Hoopla


A new controversy is brewing in the world of stock photography. Just last month, it came to light that Getty had agreed to license 5000 of its stock photos to Google while paying the creators of the images a meager one-time fee of $12. Now, one of Getty’s most successful stock photographers is claiming that his account is being terminated in the aftermath of the first hoopla.

Stock photographer Sean Locke wrote on his blog today that he received a notice from Getty Images and iStockphoto (which is owned by Getty Images) that his account will be terminated within the next 30 days.

This is pretty significant news due to the fact that Locke is one of iStockphoto’s most valuable members. A member of the service since August 2004, he is one of the top 5 contributors there, has contributed more than 12,000 photographs, and has sold nearly one million licenses.

Virtually all of Locke’s income comes directly from his relationship with Getty and iStockphoto.

Locke says much of his dispute with Getty has to do with things that occurred in the aftermath of the Getty/Google Drive licensing deal

Locke says much of his dispute with Getty has to do with things that occurred in the aftermath of the Getty/Google Drive licensing deal

So why would Getty unceremoniously dump such a notable member of its community? Locke claims that much of it has to do with his involvement in the minor revolt that happened after the “Getty Images/Google Drive licensing scheme.”

After criticizing the deal early on, Locke says he then became silent and stood watching from the sidelines. However, when some other members decided to hold a mass photo deactivation event on February 2nd, 2013 in order to protest the deal, Locke updated one of his popular Greasemonkey scripts with a deactivation button in order to support the protestors (he says deactivation is painfully tedious through the service, but is perfectly acceptable to do).

Sean Locke had authored a number of Greasemonkey scripts that enhanced the iStockphoto web service for many users

Sean Locke had authored a number of Greasemonkey scripts that enhanced the iStockphoto web service for many users

In addition to that script change, Locke also began investigating a new service in the stock agency world, contributing a number of files to test the private service (it’s currently in beta testing stage). Although Locke does have exclusivity agreements with Getty, he notes, “at this stage in the game, the other site is not licensing content and does not violate any exclusivity agreement.”

Apparently those things were enough for Getty to call it quits on its relationship with the photographer.

After some back and forth emails and phone calls with representatives at Getty Images, Locke was told that his account would be closed within the next month. The reasons given were the ones stated above.

Locke says that he will now be migrating his stock portfolio to a number of other stock services, including the one that caused Getty’s disapproval. He also offers words of warning for those sticking with Getty and iStockphoto for their photo sales:

I would like readers to take a word of warning from my experience dealing with them, and to tread cautiously in the times ahead. I know sales are down across the board, and contributor satisfaction is low, so hopefully you are working on “Plan B”.

Getty Images did not immediately respond to our request for comment. We’ll update this post with new details and developments as they arise. Head on over to Locke’s blog post for the whole story from his point of view.

Thanks for sending in the tip, Sam!

  • Steve

    I wonder if they thought of all the buyers that will now look for his portfolio on other sites? They’ve made so many bad decisions, this one didn’t surprise me that much. It’s a shame for Sean but he might be getting out of there at just the right time.

  • bob cooley

    Stock was once the bane of Assignment photographers – now it looks like its going to eat itself for low-quality, low payment images.

    it reminds me of the joke about the company who loses one dollar on every sale they make.. “Q: How do you make a profit? – A: Selling in Quantity!”

  • Willian Bones

    Too bad for Getty. Istock used to be a nice place, but was completly destroyed after getty arrives.

  • Scott M

    It used to be just end users who ignored intellectual property. Now it has become a corporate art form. Ask music people what they think about this trend.

  • JP

    If I were him, I would re-take each of the top selling photos with just the slightest amount of angle change and re-sell with the competition. They can suck it as far as I’m concerned.

  • Mike

    no pity here for photographer he deserves for he gets, by choosing to work with microstock. Hopefully Getty cause him as much trouble as possible, every photographer who contributes to microstock should be punished. It they who ruined this market.

  • Felipe Carlos

    Wouldn’t the termination of his contract with Getty make those images his to host elsewhere… Why re-shoot them if they’re popular, since Getty will no longer have them to sell once they close his account?

  • Sojourn in Peru

    You’re right on the low payment side of it. Quality stopped being a relevant argument almost a decade ago.

  • Warren

    Microstock is (or should be) a legitimate way to sell images and photographs, but all involved should make a reasonable share, if that is not maintained then it will east itself.. as it may just now be doing.

  • Nathan Blaney

    This is correct – Sean can (and I’m sure will) simply just take his images elsewhere as if he were a non-exclusive contributor. Had he been non-exclusive all along (like Yuri Arcurs) he could have already been doing this, however he has (or I guess, had) a strong personal investment (like many of us) in the iStock community. Its a shame what its become. I’m confident we’ll find Sean happily contributing to which is the new stock agency from Bruce Livingstone, who founded iStock.

    Boy, so much has changed at iStock in the past decade…

  • hdc77494

    If Getty will do this to one of their cash cows, imagine what they think of the rest of us. At this rate, Getty will end up with a bunch of iphone images joe blow will be trilled to get fifteen cents for, but I don’t think their clients will be so happy.
    Much like e-bay and facebook, no one, of any caliber, should leave their livelihood at the mercy of a third party. The guy signed an exclusive deal with Getty, and left himself entirely at their mercy. Lesson learned.

  • hdc77494

    I wonder. Do you think the stock houses are looking to replace pro stock images with cheap phone photos? Is the math compelling enough? Supposedly content is king, but do you have to achieve critical mass like Getty to make money? Do the video shooters do any better?

  • Nathan Blaney

    “The guy signed an exclusive deal with Getty, and left himself entirely at their mercy. Lesson learned.” Well, its not quite that cut and dry. By the time the sale to Getty happened, many of us had been contributors to iStock for years and there was (at the time) a strong sense of community there. So even if someone objected to the idea of Getty ownership of iStock, it was apparent what would become of iStock. I find it hard to fault someone with a huge personal investment in a community over a decade for sticking around and trying to make the best of things.

  • hdc77494

    Nathan, if you change the name from Getty to iStock, the result is the same, and I argue, it’s easily predictable. The content developers should hold most of the power, especially someone who invested as much time and effort as this photographer. In the end, it’s the distributor who gets most of the value from an exclusive arrangement, not the photographer. Think of all that work spent adding value to somebody else’s investment rather than his own.

  • steve

    Spoken like a true member of the old guard. You might as well blame the progress of humankind while your at it. New technology, free market economy… you name it. How about lets not go back to this old argument. Times change. Deal with it.

  • Steve Davey

    Have to say I agree with Mike – Microstock photographers have done more than anyone else over the last decade to commodify photography and now are realising that they are just commodities themselves. The stampede to the bottom has dropped prices and quality to such a level that it is almost impossible for professional photographers to survive, so we have an industry based upon amateurs and moonlighters. Then these people wonder why the agencies no longer see the need to treat them, or value them as professionals. You have created the beast – against the advice of many people who have worked in the industry for years – now you complain that it has bitten you and expect us all to sympathise?

  • Adam Gasson

    You can apply that exact same argument to Sean’s case. He upset Getty and got kicked out, he just needs to deal with it. Getty don’t need Sean, they don’t need any individual photographer because there are a hundred that will jump in their spot in a heartbeat. The times have changed. Stock sites are owned by huge companies like Getty who exist primarily to make profit for their investors and shareholders.

  • Don

    No sympathy for Sean at all, it’s guys like this who cheapened & destroyed the credibility of professional Photography over the last 10 years!

  • Crabby Umbo

    As a professional photographer, it’s hard to think of anyone as another “pro” who has 12,000 photo’s on file and one million licenses; he’s a factory worker manning a photographic drill press, not the next Avedon. All those on here that say he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution is right on the beam. It’s going to be hard to raise any kind of sympathy for someone who’s been involved in wrecking the business and is now trying to motivate people to back his level of “wrecking” vs. the new level of “wrecking”.

  • trailfan

    True, yet the payment model did not evolve with the tech. Agencies are the only ones who can make a healthy profit from the numbers such as they are. With the high volume in micro, it makes perfect sense that revenue is a 90/10 or 80/20 photog/agent split at the very least. The agencies are making millions off pennies because they have millions of photos plus lion’s share of revenue. Criminal practically, and lack of ethical responsibility definitely. But change the equation on revenue split and I think everyone can be fairly compensated, content, and most of all, feel valued (which alone will raise quality across the board – the factor that will become most important as this plays out over the next few years…).

  • Mark Stout

    I recall Sean bashing the hell out of pro photographers when it was suggested in a thread years back that microstock asked too much for too little and saying we were all just going to have to learn how to work. Later I saw him screaming the loudest when iStock began cutting rates while raising prices and now he is getting sacked. I found it odd that someone who said the plunge from industry standard stock pricing to microstock pricing of less than pennies on the dollar was okay but a small 1 or 2% percentage cut in HIS royalties was not.

    I do feel sorry for him, he seems to be getting sacked for crying foul on the stock photo industry but he chose the wrong point to do that. The entire microstock business model lacks respect for contributors and the industry it “feeds on.” As others have mentioned, microstock has harmed the entire industry and made it more difficult for pros to stay profitable. This in turn will eventually harm those who need real professionals.

    Microstock will continue to devalue the industry and disrespect its contributors as long as photographers permit it to do so. Hopefully some recent events will cause contributors to wake up and demand fair pay and treatment or pull out. These include Sean being sacked, Yuri deciding to pull out and set up his own site… and the founder of iStock setting up a “sustaniable” stock agency. (I hope photographers will be smart enough to give this last one the cold shoulder. It was, after all, Livingstone who created the unsustainable microstock business model in the first place.)

  • Antonio Carrasco

    well said!!!

  • steve

    Did you read Sean’s blog. He was upset at the way they went about it but he isn’t crying in his soup like poor Mike up there. He still has a positive outlook and I believe he will come out on top. It’s Getty’s loss believe me. Yeah they’re big and they don’t care about any one contributor but eventually that attitude is going to bite them in the a$$. Remember, they weren’t the ones who invented microstock. They’re still trying to buy it out but it just keeps spreading out from under them wherever Getty puts it’s big ugly foot.

    It’s guys like Mike (and maybe you) who enjoyed the old days because it was like a fiefdome where only a few people held the keys to the castle and those inside were living it up and looking out the barred windows laughing at all the serfs who couldn’t get in. Well technology for the most part has changed all that and leveled the playing field. Sure the price pendulum swung to low for a while there but it is on the upswing and things are evening out (with exception of ridiculous deals like Getty/Google) except the pie is divided out a lot more fairly.

  • Mansgame

    You live by the sword of cheap photos, you die by the sword of cheap photos. If he’s so good he can start his own site with his 12,000 pictures. I bet he can sell 10 or 20.

  • TF

    When you dance with the devil… what did he expect with an exclusivity agreement?

  • Mike McDonald

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the primary issue Sean was fighting when he was dismissed was an issue that goes beyond microstock. Getty is porting content into these Google deals from all across their family of companies. It’s not just microstock ending up in these collections in which the artist gets a few bucks. It’s the higher-priced content as well, from Getty itself and other subsidiaries.

    Ignoring the microstock argument for a second, this is an issue that any Getty artist can face. If you speak up about these terrible deals they are cutting, you could end up just like Sean, whether you’re on istock, GI, or any Getty site.

  • Jo Ann

    Talk about people unclear on the concept!

    Most of these comments are tired old rants about something completely unrelated to Getty’s 30-day notice of a contract termination. Any Getty photographer could have been the lucky recipient of this scummy move on Getty’s part.

    Sean Locke didn’t invent microstock and it makes no sense to kitchen sink all your issues with it into comments on this article. Can you not see that it could also be Getty photographers you “approve” who could be next?

    The enemy here is Getty Images – direct your ire at them. Don’t be so lost in your delight that someone from microstock is getting a raw deal that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

  • Дарко Ивановић

    You fail to realize that microstock photographers and contributors are not lacking skill equal to your so called “professional” counterparts. Also many of them dedicate full time hours to shooting/editing – so again you fail to realize that microstock is industry that require skill/talent/time to succeed in. And I disagree with your point about quality of stock imagery as well. Never before there were so much of high quality productions available for everyone’s budgets. Relying on old business models does not lead to evolution…ask Barnes Noble or music record companies. Borders and EMI went bankrupt.
    iTunes revolutionized music sales on it’s micro level – selling song for a buck. But I disgress…

  • Guest

    I think it’s the digital who ruined the business. Or let’s reverse, it’s Edison/Tesla duo who invented electricity.

  • Sojourn in Peru

    10 or 20 thousand, no less. Each year. Surprised your avatar isn’t green as well?

  • hdc77494

    For those of you with the luck, connections and charisma to sell prints for thousands, bravo. That said, the rest of us Salieris have to make a living too. If your photos command top dollar, guess what, they still do. For those of you wanting a supply limiting cartel so you can charge a supply based premium, the world has changed. We can argue all day whether it was ethical for Craigslist to destroy the newspaper classified business with free ads, but the reality is, digital changes everything. For all of us in every profession, it’s adapt or die.

  • lgrant

    Do you even submit stock to an agency? The image criteria for most reputable stock agencies is rather strict. Lo Res images and phone images; ‘amateur’ images such as you and many others describe…just don’t get accepted for stock, period. The fact that this man uploaded 12k pictures which were accepted shows his level of professionalism and expertise; rather than the denigration of professionalism some have suggested in this thread. I project a mass migration of talent away from Getty.

  • michaelASH

    FOR SURE !!!

  • John

    The sooner Getty gets to the bottom of the toilet bowl the better. They have done far more to damage photographers than they ever have to help them…

  • bob cooley

    Sad but true…

  • lostinbids

    Have you even seen the quality there or not? There are great photos and great photographers there. I am guessing you don’t know the prices either – at the low end a dollar at the high end $300.

    Why not judge things as they are now and not 10 years ago.

  • bob cooley

    I’ve been on both sides of the desk for nearly 30 years, both as a photographer and as an art-buyer / creative director. I’ve seen the quality there, and it is mediocre. at best.

    And in fact I do know the pricing, likely far better than you – and you are getting what you pay for…

    I’m amazed at the people who will defend mediocre work, and low payment for any work.

  • lostinbids

    So you are saying Sean Locke’s work is mediocre?

    I guess if this ‘mediocre’ work can turnover about $2m a year, I wonder why there aren’t a load of ‘good’ photographers joining and selling their work in his place.

  • bob cooley

    I’m saying exactly that. Its not horrible; just not interesting, inspiring or above the curve. it looks like, well, stock – sanitized and without any real life, true narrative or emotional depth.

    Burger King turns over in Billions in selling the worst part of the beef (and recently discovered) horse meat in a product that is really bad for you.

    Cigarette companies have made Trillions selling people a product that we KNOW kills, and is even labeled as such.

    There are many businesses that make money on quantity, not quality. Potential for profitability does not equal quality.

    I won’t begrudge Sean his ability to take advantage of an existing market condition, but then again, as someone who enjoys food (and my health) you won’t see me eating at fast food restaurants. And as someone who buys commercial work for publication, you won’t see me turning to the dregs of iStock.

    To answer your question, there used to be many good photographers who sold via stock, when fair commissions were paid for good images. When there were multiple, high-quality stock agencies competing in the market, the industry was full of pretty inspiring images – Then Getty systematical bought Tony Stone Images, The Image Bank, and pretty much all of the quality agencies in the market – they were also able to acquire many photographic collections from estates. And in the beginning, it wasn’t a bad thing.

    Some quality photography still exists on Getty, but many of its better photographers are abandoning the company due to lower commissions being paid, deals being made without the permission of the photographer, and a general downward slide in pricing and quality. Sean’s work was on iStock, which is owned by Getty, but is really the ‘bargain basement’ of their service.

    Microstock (and iStock shooters like Sean) are all about cranking out ‘good enough’ quantity over taking the time to create inspired, quality photography. it’s his business model and choice to do so, and it has worked for him, but don’t confuse that with quality.

  • Kevin Alsoknownas Winning

    what about Yuri Arcurs ???? Who can match his quality or perfection of execution ? You sound like one of the ol timers that could not hang with the newer, hiher skilled digital photographers in the market.

  • bpatphotos

    Now I know why Shutterstock is growing their contributor base in large numbers! They treat their contributors right…

  • janeygent

    I purchased an image 4 months ago and now after Getty purchased them, the same image is 3x’s higher in price. This was a great resource for small independent designers, now, not so much.

  • Destination360

    What i find interesting is istockphoto unlicensed images can we found throughout the internet. They have no process or interest of controlling unlicensed images.