It's the End of Stock Photography as we know it, and I feel fine.

flickr photostream I believe we are fast approaching the death of the stock photography market (ar at least as we know it). For a very long time companies like Getty, Jupitermedia, and Corbis have held a tight grip on the entire stock photo market. Marketing companies, designers, and media shops would search their massive databases of photos and then pay large licensing fees to use the photos they wanted for print, web, and advertising. Most of these licenses were rather restrictive.

Well, that was before everyone had a digital camera and before the internet made it so easy to share photography.

Several years ago, a small startup by the name of iStockPhoto was launched with a revolutionary idea: let anyone register, contribute photos, and allow them to upload and download royalty-free images and illustrations on a profit-sharing basis.

The iStockPhoto idea took off and designers like myself were very happy to contribute some of our work and use some of the proceeds to get other people’s photos for our own designs. Since then the company has grown tremendously – they’ve added many more features, licensing options, etc. The photo prices also increased.

Getty Images bought out iStockPhoto in February of this year for $50M. Getty is now faced with trying to balance their old-school (and very profitable) stock photo model with the wildy successful (and less profitable) iStockPhoto model. One has obviously been cannibalizing the other.

As hardware costs and barriers to entry are diminishing online, there’s nothing stopping more companies like iStockPhoto from launching. As a matter of fact it’s inevitable. With the current monetization models out there, it seems like you could very well run a free stock photo site and make it successful. The challenge (as it always is) is reaching critical mass, but if you have a good strategy, it can be done.

In 2004, Flickr added Creative Commons (CC) licensing options to photos contributed by their users. In 2005 Flickr added a Creative Commons search to their database as well. As Flickr’s user base grew, so did the number of searchable photos licensed under different CC options.

As John Batelle recently pointed out, there are now 22M photos licensed under Creative Commons on Flickr. I’m actually planning on licensing my own photos under a non-commercial attribution license. Last week a Brazilian publisher emailed my girlfriend asking permission to use one of her Flickr photos in a textbook her company was producing. Since it was for a good cause (education), she obliged.

Getting permission to use Flickr photos (unless it’s already given via CC) is much smarter than paying massive royalties to Getty or any other large old-school photo aggregator who then ends up splitting the proceeds with the artist.

Flickr and other services that make it easy to search large databases of photos and contact the photographers directly are far more cheaper and efficient than the old system. The stock photography oligopoly is being replaced with socially distributed systems and I’m happy about it. More people will see my work, I’ll be able to get the work of others more easily – everyone wins! (Well, almost everyone).