Announcing Insects Unlocked

A while back I wrote a feature for Ars Technica on the dysfunctional online copyright landscape. The piece was personal. My photographs average around $50 each to make, mostly in time, equipment, and travel costs. These costs have traditionally been covered by commercial users who buy permissions, as copyright law requires.

Yet fewer than 10% of the online commercial users of my work have even asked permission, much less paid. Such low rates were not sustainable. What was remarkable about my situation, also, was precisely nothing. A great many professional photographers see similar exploitation. That is how it is, it is frustrating, and if we knew an easy solution, we would be doing it already.

Among the varied reactions to the Ars piece was a persistent suggestion that maybe I ought try a different approach, one that asks the community to pay the costs up front in exchange for open images. Like it or not, science and nature photographs online are most often treated as a public resource, not as a tradeable commodity, and perhaps their production should reflect that reality.

I can see the logic. Science images are informative about the world around us, they are data as well as art. Perhaps, with a shift in perspective, the photo-using community might be convinced to share the costs of a public resource, as we do with other public services. NASA and USGS, for example, already make fantastic public domain images from taxpayer support. Could crowdfunding similarly serve as a copyright-free foundation for science imagery?

I don’t see why not. Neither does my new employer, the University of Texas at Austin, which has generously thrown their support behind our new, crowdfunded public domain initiative called Insects Unlocked. Here’s the pitch:

Insects Unlocked

We’ll be supporting a team of UT students as they produce thousands of public domain images, both of live animal behavior in the field and of detailed microscopic structures in preserved specimens. We hope you consider helping us as we create a stream of open science images, free for anyone to use.

[Video expertly shot by Ian Wright and adeptly edited by Adrian Smith]

7 thoughts on “Announcing Insects Unlocked”

  1. Asking for donations may be one viable approach to the problem, and I certainly hope that it works out. I do not know how Shutterstock gets all of its material, but I was wondering if they were another possibility. That is, maybe they could ‘have’ photographs and they give you a kickback when they are used. If so, then they can deal with the piracy problem. This would only be viable for new photographs that are not already out there.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mark.

    Shutterstock, and any of the other microstocks, are not an option. I have experimented a bit with Getty, and it was not worth my time. The pay is dismal, the rights enforcement is sporadic and ham-fisted, and they have a habit of feeding images into cut-rate poster art companies that undercut my print sales, leaving me with about $0.30 per sale on prints I normally net $30 or more.

    I have instead settled on a model of keeping my license fees where they are, in the $100-$400 range. People who want to use my work commercially usually have a sufficient budget for these rates. Counter-intuitively, my experimentation with lower rates led me to conclude that I don’t actually make more sales by offering cheaper photos. Rather, I make less money, and I see more infringement problems later.

    I have recently signed on with the copyright enforcement company ImageRights International to handle commercial infringements, as I no longer have the time to spend 10 hours a week sending DMCA takedown notices.

  3. I’m an insect photographer as well. The market for my photographs will decline with ideas like this. Can you explain how this is going to benefit the photography market by giving out free images? Too many photographers these days are doing work for free just to try and build clients and now you have this plan to give away free high quality insect images? Well, I see that as a huge negative blow to all other insect photographers out there…

    I do love your work by the way…but I never saw this coming. Help me open my mind a little. What am I not seeing? How is this going to be a benefit and not negatively impact all other insect photographers?

  4. Pingback: – Will The Insects Unlocked Project Damage The Commercial Insect Photo Market?

  5. Hi Alex,

    We got a letter from attorneys representing you concerning a moisture ant pic our website designer failed to vet properly. We’re sorry about that, we should have been over seeing that process closer.

    As your fundraiser clearly shows, you understand how difficult good pics are to find. We decided to donate to the cause, both in apology for the accident & in hope of using your work in the future.

    Hope it all works out,
    Mark Strazhari

  6. This makes me so happy.

    I was genuinely upset when I saw your struggles with copyright cause you so much frustration. It’s so obvious that when you do your work it’s out of joy (not that it isn’t difficult or doesn’t require talent and dedication) and it bothers me that as a society we struggle so much with enabling people like you because creations that come out of joy are often so much better than something somebody had to be externally motivated to do. (Supported by Science!(tm))

    The fact that you’re finding a way around that is really awesome and I really respect what you’re trying to do. I just wish the default was that if you were doing something useful and you’d happily do that work and not have to waste all your time worrying about monetizing what you do to survive. We just end up with you as a creator frustrated and stressed out and the rest of the world misses out on the wonderful tiny world you expose to us.

    Thanks for making my day!

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