iStockphoto Creator Bruce Livingstone Takes A Second Stab At Stock Photos

Bruce Livingstone created iStockphoto. Now he’s launching its opposite: Stocksy, a co-op designed to pay photographers as much as possible for their best photos.

Bruce Livingstone created iStockphoto from the perspective of a photographer. Initially designed as a community for trading photos, the site only began selling photos to pay the hosting bills.


So it’s easy to imagine that in 2013, years after having sold iStockphoto to Getty Images for $50 million, Livingstone is a bit disappointed with what iStockphoto has become. Getty discontinued the system that allowed photographers to earn a better royalty rate by selling photos over several years (Getty defended the decision by saying the model wasn’t sustainable). Meanwhile, a flood of contributors have made selling photos a more competitive venture, and shifting formats and licensing deals have made some photographers feel cheated. Getty recently, for instance, made an unpopular licensing deal with Google that paid photographers a small one-time fee for photos that Google Drive users can now insert in their own work within the product however they wish.

“It’s hard for me to criticize their corporation,” Livingstone says. “They’re responsible to their shareholders. They have to keep making profits and keep having growth. I totally get it. I don’t fault them for that.” But within his photographer network, it seemed like what started as a friendly business had grown up to become a monster. “One of the most depressing ones for me,” Livingstone says, “[were] people who I had helped change their lives–real estate agents or veterans or policemen who had quit their jobs and had focused on making stock photography and were earning a living–suddenly saying, I’m going to have to go back to my old job.”

Stories like these inspired Livingstone to take another stab at building a stock photo site. His new site, called Stocksy, focuses on paying photographers as much as possible.

iStockphoto pays photographers 15% of photo sales for their first contributions and up to 45% of sales (depending on how much they sell in a year) if they’re exclusive. Shutterstock pays 20% to 30% royalties. Stocksy, which launches Monday, pays all photographers 50% royalties for all photos. The site is also a co-op. At the end of the year, it divides 90% of its profits equally among contributors and other shareholders.

These terms have attracted top photographers such as Sean Locke, who contributed more than 12,000 photos and almost one million license sales to iStockphoto before Getty terminated his relationship with the site in February (he says in retaliation for criticizing the Google Drive deal). But focusing on fair pay for photographers means that some photos will be more expensive than similar photos on other stock photo sites. “We know that,” Livingstone says. “If you want a picture of an apple on a white background, we probably don’t have the shot you’re looking for, and I would say go ahead and buy it from someone else. That’s not the market we’re after.”

Livingstone describes Stocksy’s asthetic as “photos that capture reality.” Each will be screened before it is posted on the site. “Our goal is for photographers to sell really special photographs through us,” he says, “and we’re going to pay them as much as possible because they’ve entrusted us with those pictures.”


Visiting Stocksy as a buyer is a similar experience to other stock photo sites, with a few exceptions such as social features for liking and commenting on photos, an option to message photographers in order to request specific shots, and a clear dollar amount transaction rather than tokens or a subscription system.

And then, of course, there’s the big distinction–which is that Stocksy promises photographers will be paid well for their work. That’s certainly important for contributing photographers, but will buyers care? “I don’t know,” Livingstone says. “Do people care about who picks coffee beans? Maybe. Do people care about Toms shoes, when you buy a pair of Toms over Nike. I mean, I care. I can feel like I’m doing good in the world, trying to do some good in the world. So I think, yes, people will care.”

He adds:

“Some people won’t. And that’s okay.”

Getty did not immediately respond to questions about discontinuing its relationship with Sean Locke, its licensing deal with Google Drive, or changes to how it pays photographers.

Update: An iStockphoto spokesperson noted in a statement that the site has 100,000 contributors and not every photographer or videographer will find it to be the right choice. The spokesperson added: “We wish these individuals the best as they find the best option for their work.”


[Images Courtesy of Stocksy]


About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.