Distributed, Interactive, Monetizable Photos

Pete Cashmore over at Mashable.com writes about ways to monetize images and photographs for creative types in some kind of generic way. He’s not alone in a desire to find ways to make money out of a creative pastime and the variety of stock photography websites, especially the new breed of do-it-yourself, “self-pricing” website applications such as Fotolia.com, are testament to that fact.

Pete asks a question as to his idea’s validity in his post on this subject and I found it interesting to think about it in more detail. I started to write a comment on his website, but it got too long and deserved a post of its own, so here we are! I’ll trackback instead.

Pete’s idea is a good one and I like the NowPublic.com example he displays, but micropayments have a long standing and inherent problem. This problem is two fold – firstly very small payments are hard to take from people. There is currently no popular and established way to take payments that are say less than $1. Most credit card issuers charge too much, although PayPal does just this, so to verify your account (not sure how).

The second is that it is really hard to get the general internet public to part with cash for things that they “perceive” to be “free”. In conjunction with the second issue is the fact that if you try and charge for something, there is always another business giving it away for free. Consumers on the internet are getting more and more savvy (see uptake of OpenOffice as an example), so you’re always fighting a losing battle to actually make money. The rise of shareware, and more recently donationware, are testament to this phenomenon.

The problem with NowPublic’s solution, plus other technologies such as Java, Javascript, Flash, being used to do what he has suggested, all suffer from the problem that they are too complicated for the average person to deal with. They are also a “combination technology” – that is that they are not the final product (our monetized photos), but a tool to deliver the requirement indirectly. What the “average Joe” really needs is a way to insert an image into their HTML as they do at present (Dreamweaver, Blogger, WYSIWYG engines etc) and the associated costs or advertising is inherent within that image. Many sites use watermarking for protecting their images and in some ways this offers advertising opportunities too. So where do we go from here?

My theory is that you could establish a new image format. The format could be similar to the animated GIF. The animated GIF could do this BTW, but it isn’t a great compression format for photography. The photograph would by default, display the photograph, and in the second “frame”, the picture from the advertiser. Ideally these photographs are self updating, that is to say, that the second advertising frame is dynamic and loaded via a remote advertising central server. Hence this is Google Adsense on amphetamines. Rather than linking the advertising with the content, they become the same thing – tied so closely together that the photograph and advertisement are actually the same piece of media.

This solution does have some problems. Firstly new image compression standards are hard to establish. Browsers need to be able to support them, and this takes time. Consider how long it has taken to get the PNG format off the ground – even against a patent fuelled backlash against the GIF LZW algorithm, stirred up by Unisys pettiness in the 1990’s.

There is no real answer to Pete’s question, although I think it was a great thought, as the majority of internet users and casual hobbyist photographer’s would enjoy seeing some kind of financial back hander for their efforts. Already there have been several cases of big companies abusing intellectual property on the internet, many corporate thefts have been “Flickred” and “Dugg” to many of these big corporations‘ collective embarassment.

So, how also do you monetize the photograph without advertising? In other words how does a photographer make “microcharges” for the display of one of his photos on another website? The “hotlinking” principal would be the best technology we have presently, such that one could have a charging mechanism based on log file referral data. You can also deliver binary data over web services, but I believe that it would be overkill in this case. Ideally a piece of digital media should be freely movable and the technology should offer a distributed methodology. Centralised services are prone to problems, and you have to remember that for the end-user, they just want to see the image. They don’t want the complication of Flash installations, AJAX wizardry or anything else for that matter. They just want to see the image. That is something that we have to remember and bear in mind. The WWW was born on the basic principals of a distributed architecture and that is truely why it has been so successful.

Finally, we also need to generically link the advertisement to the advertiser, or the photograph to the photographer. Although EXIF offers ways to store metadata about an image, it doesn’t provide a direct linking mechanism. One should actually question as to whether an image as a piece of media, should provide linking capabilities generically, or is it breaking the ideas behind the fundemental hyperlink principals of the WWW. On that idea I’ll say little more, but leave others to ponder upon it independently! Comments are welcome.