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Getty sharpens its focus on snap-happy amateurs

Larry Ryan hears the strategy behind Getty's new deal with user-generated site Flickr.com

A picture called "Stormy Rye" on the online photography behemoth Flickr.com shows dark, dramatic storm clouds looming over the rural town of Rye in East Sussex.

This shot, by Gregory Warran, is one of 585 on his Flickr page and has been viewed more than 600 times. It has received a plethora of comments and tagged as a "favourite" by 18 people. Also since 11 March, contained among its credit information is the line, "License this photo on Getty Images". The photograph, along with eight others by Warran, is part of the photo agency Getty Images' "Flickr Collection".

The two organisations, Flickr and Getty, have embarked on a partnership to provide a selection of Flickr's user-generated content as easily accessed commercial stock/creative photography. It will begin as a bank of 10,000 available, licensed images, but will be continually expanded.

The link-up ( gettyimages.com/flickr) is the result of a long courting process. "We were hearing from our customers that they were going on Flickr for inspiration," explains Getty co-founder and CEO, Jonathan Klein. "They would find pictures they might want to use commercially, but it was incredibly difficult to track down the photographer to see if it was licensable. So we went to Flickr three years ago and said we think we can help you and your community monetise your content."

Flickr weren't ready to reciprocate. "What's typical with a lot of companies is they think they can do it all themselves." Years passed and Flickr had yet to set up any commercial licensing process, so Getty returned to the table and, nine months ago, a deal was signed to create the Flickr Collection.

Yahoo!, Flickr's parent company since 2005, will receive an undisclosed annual fee to allow Getty to market selected content. Getty's editors have since combed Flickr, finding suitable images and contacting photographers to ask if they wish to be involved.

"Monetising content" is one of those holy-grail terms of internet business, particularly since the explosion of user-generated content in recent years. According to Klein: "Flickr is a classic case of a site with enormous traffic, enormous membership, enormous loyalty and no money." Flickr claims to have 73 million visitors per month and 35 million members. The benefit for Flickr and Yahoo is generating income from and for the community, without pushing advertising. Also, given the Wild West nature of the web, it helps that Flickr is owned by a multi-national corporation.

"This deal wouldn't have happened if Flickr was still owned by its original founders," Klein says. "They would have just seen it as not what they were about. The language they used to describe Flickr is not the language of business. Phrases like, 'Flickr is the best place on earth to be a photograph'. That's not business talk, that's community talk. But as the world has evolved there has been no resistance."

The Flickr Collection isn't Getty's only interaction with user-generated imagery. In 2006, at a cost of $50m, it acquired iStockPhoto.com, which, until then, had been able to undercut Getty by selling images for as low as $1 per photo. Acquiring that site, as well as Flickr, shows Getty firmly marking out its territory online.

The collection is being offered on the same platform as Getty's professional photographs. Flickr photographers will be paid the same fees as Getty's – typically between £140 and £360 per image. While this creates greater competition, Klein claims the deal puts these photographers at industry standards, preventing them from vastly undercutting the price of established professional work.

Later this month, Life.com will re-launch as a partnership between Time magazine and Getty. With the help of Google, Time has put 12 million images from its Life photography archive online. Getty will bring its archive to the site also, along with 3,000 new editorial images daily. Klein's aim is to provide the user with a nicer experience than Google Images.

Klein predicts the rise of subscription sites now advertising revenue is diminishing. "As we get smarter on the web, we are more able to identify people's interests and we know that fans of anything have disposable income for what they're into." Getty's WireImage.com, a site providing celebrity pictures, follows this model. "We charge people to look at photos. So if you go on WireImage the day after the Oscars and click on a picture of Kate Winslet, you can't see that picture bigger unless you pay. We don't market it, we don't talk about it but it generates about two million dollars in profit every year. It's built for commercial customers but consumers use it too."

This model can develop, he insists. "Imagine if you build a site...which actually works for consumers where you can put together slideshows and alerts and stack and carousels, and you can vote and Digg it and Facebook it etc... we've got a trial going with a big US magazine on that."

For a beleaguered media industry, flailing in the face of vanishing advertising revenue, Klein offers a slim ray of hope: "People will pay, but I don't think they'll do it in massive amounts."