There was a time, around a decade ago, when Calgary was a hotbed of disruptive change in the business of selling images. In particular, a startup called iStockphoto created an online marketplace where photographers could sell their shots for $20 or less in competition with big stock-photo agencies that sold similar pics for hundreds of dollars. Those who purchase images—from media outlets to graphic designers—embraced it. Then in 2006, iStock’s founders accepted a US$50-million takeover offer from the most aggressive of those big agencies, Getty Images. They thought Getty had seen the light.
That turned out not to be the case, at least in the opinion of iStock co-founder Bruce Livingstone. “I was there long enough to see the dismantling,” he says. “They took a really good business and ruined it.”
But now, seven years later, a new revolution is afoot, and Getty finds itself in competition again with the very people it made rich. Livingstone is behind a new still-photo venture based in Victoria called Stocksy, while his onetime partner Patrick Lor has co-founded a video marketplace, Dissolve Inc., in Calgary. Lor’s partners in the latter include three alumni of Veer, yet another Calgary-based digital-image vendor that was bought by yet another industry giant, Corbis. (All four once worked together at Image Club Graphics, a developer of fonts and clip art, in the 1990s.) Dissolve is backed by $5 million in financing from the founders and Montreal-based venture capital firm iNovia.
Its business model sounds familiar. The vast majority of its 100,000 videos on offer can be had for just $5. The remaining 5% is tier-priced at $50, $150 and $500. And it makes no secret of whose lunch it plans to eat, noting in one release, “the exact same clip can sell for as much as $450 on Getty Images.”
In an era where even books have video trailers, Dissolve’s entry—it launched a beta version in September—may be timely. Stephen Proctor, a visual media artist in Nashville, Tenn., says Dissolve’s edge is less about the price than it is the ease of use. “I had a client who wanted a very specific kind of clip included in a two-minute multimedia introduction,” he says. He quickly found the clip he was looking for on Dissolve. “There is tons of stock footage out there,” Proctor says. “Until now, the model has been, ‘Whoever has the most content wins.’ It’s moving to, ‘Whoever curates content the best wins.’”
Lor, who left iStock soon after selling out and has long since seen his two-year non-compete agreement with Getty expire, had a head start with Dissolve. (In the intervening years, he served as head of North American operations for Fotolia, a French stock-image provider.)
Livingstone, who continued to work with Getty well after the iStock sale, was bound by a non-compete agreement until last year. In March of this year he launched Stocksy as a co-op on an agrarian model, one that pays contributors 50% off the bat and then pays dividends at the end of the year, divesting 90% of its profits. Unfortunately for Getty and its ilk, there appear to be revolutions yet to come in stock imagery.