Our plan to produce public domain images at the University of Texas has drawn the ire of professional photographers, several of whom have emailed me privately or commented publicly expressing concern for how the project will affect the insect photo market. For example:
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?
I wish I had time to write a proper response to these queries. As it is, UT has me briskly busy during the day and mini-Myrmecos, at 18 months, keeps me plenty occupied during off hours. But, here is a short version on why I doubt Insects Unlocked will be a net negative for commercial insect photographers.
Obviously, a basic reading of supply and demand suggests that increasing supply by adding a couple thousand free photos to the market would depress prices. But buyers aren’t looking for generic insect photos. Or rather, the buyers that matter aren’t. Those looking for generics already use .30 cent microstock images. That market long ago collapsed to the point of irrelevance for pro shooters.
Buyers that matter, buyers with money, are looking for specialty images. They want photos of Apis florea in flight with a forested backdrop, a close-up of a cutworm eating lettuce, or a third instar triatomine assassin bug photographed in dorsal view. Insects Unlocked may intrude somewhat into this market, but let’s be realistic about how much it will intrude: not much. Our planned 1,000 to 2,000 image output in the pilot year is barely going to make a dent in the face of overwhelming insect diversity. Even working our hardest, we’ll be lucky to image 0.01% of the world’s 10 million species. Hell, we’ll be lucky to manage .1% of the insect fauna of just Texas.
Buyers that matter are looking for rarity, too. I know this from interactions I’ve had over the years. Buyers commonly ask if I have unpublished photos, or photos that aren’t licensed very often. New, unseen images have special value. Public domain images do not. Nothing says “I’m nearly bankrupt” like a company splaying public domain images across their products. Even if the Insects Unlocked output is visually spectacular, most high-value buyers will still buy from copyrighted stock, as copyright ensures the coveted rarity.
Buyers in the print market- the ones with money- are similarly not looking for generic insect photographs. They’re looking for a Piotr Naskrecki or a Darlyne Murawski. Insects Unlocked does not plan on producing any of those.
This, particularly, is what frustrates me most about the notion that Insects Unlocked will weaken the market. The despair would make sense in a bland, uncreative world where the works of all insect photographers were interchangeable. But they are not. Each photographer has a unique style. I can pick, for example, a Laurie Knight photo from 100 meters out. We are not Laurie Knight, alas. We’re Insects Unlocked. The buyers who matter are discerning enough to tell us apart. If you think Insects Unlocked will weaken your market, what does that say about your photography?
Likewise, the professional photographer most likely to take a financial hit from Insects Unlocked is me. In spite of my new university position, I still earn a substantial proportion of my income from licensing images from my copyright-protected libraries, and from print sales. If buyers have a choice between a $250 copyrighted Alex Wild print from my galleries, or a public domain Alex Wild printed for $5 from Walmart, will they choose rarity over cost? If I am short-changing anyone with Insects Unlocked, it isn’t other photographers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we rise and fall not as much on how we compete with each other, but on how our subject matter competes with other cultural concerns. If the general public’s entomological interests declines, we’re all screwed, public domain or no. If public interest doubles, we all do well. Rising tide, ships, you know the metaphor. To the extent that a small public domain image campaign buoys the public perception of insects, we all benefit.
And now, because I am exhausted and behind schedule on other projects, I am publishing this post without proofreading. Fair warning.