About Me

Crowdsourcing: A Definition

  • I like to use two definitions for crowdsourcing:

    The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

    The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

The Rise of Crowdsourcing

  • Read the original article about crowdsourcing, published in the June, 2006 issue of Wired Magazine.
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May 24, 2006


Mark Harmel

I'm the photographer mentioned in the Jeff's Wired story. My initial reaction to the iStockphoto business model, was yet another assault on the photography business. There has been a constant downward pressure of fees paid to photographers combined with a rise in the reproduction rights demanded by clients. The iStockphoto business model was yet another downward leap in the race to the bottom.

I personally don't mind the artistic competition from crowdsourcers. I know how hard it is to take a good photo. Digital technology may make it easier to recognize when you have taken a bad picture, but making a memorable image still takes talent, hard work and years of devotion to your craft. iStock has built a great community in supporting others to learn about photography. But I feel that they have built a system that is exploitive of their contributors.

It may be fun at first to know that you photo is being used by someone else. I too enjoyed seeing my name in print when I first started in photography, but when you are trying to make a living with your talent it is even more important to see you name in print on a check.

It could even be great to get an extra 20 cents for the honor. What the iStock owners didn't tell the contributors was that the photo market was offering $200 and more for similar uses. I personally don't understand how the economics of their system could work to sustain the operation, but when Getty Images came in with a check for $50 million it became clear that there was a way for the owners to make money on the system. Unfortunately the contributing photographer still get a measly 20 cents for the reproduction of their image.

Is this the great democracy of the marketplace at work? Or is it the way for a few to get rich by exploiting the crowd?


I have been an avid “Wired” reader for a long time. Kudos on the article; great intro to the birthing of a new trend, at least as you described it. Immeasurable for sure but I predict rapid growth as soon as the vehicle, “crowdsourcing” works its way into the general consciousness. In fact I am looking forward to the day when spell checker doesn’t go red on it! Cheers, Alan.


P.S. I would be interested to know who coined the term, any clue. Alan.


Those are good questions Mark. The obvious change in the market place because of such practices is surely going to be on-going. Is it an economic engine that drives such practices? In the past three decades the move from moral considerations, concern for an employee or his/her family, health and so on, have gone south in such a hurry as to burn large numbers. As new paradigms come into existence those who live or die by such changes become like chaff in the wind. The sad reality is that the settled chaff becomes the compost for future changes. I think that “the great democracy of the market place” is humbug. We all know the fairytales, aren’t the big guns just wolves in sheep’s clothing? There is an interesting twist, whilst “crowdsourcing” might make a process cheaper for the large companies, because of the large numbers of individuals who are waiting to do the work for much less, the large companies use that self same principle to fleece those who are saving them buckets, go figure! Alan.

Rob Sylvan

As a small time (working for a non-profit) web developer looking for legal image content that I could afford, I stumbled upon iStockphoto back in 2002. They had just transitioned from an image exchange system to a fee based system, and I had just picked up my first digital camera 6 months prior to take snap shots of my newly born son.

I couldn't believe my good fortune! One could download a royalty free image instantly for 25 cents a pop, but that was not what got me excited, it was the fact that they would actually allow me to put my own 3MP images up to be licensed. At the time, I would receive 5 cents every time one of my images was licensed. I sent in a few sample photos and I was in.

In the years that have passed I have had opportunities to be involved with many aspects of istockphoto operations as both a volunteer and also under contract. I certainly owe everything I know about photography to my experiences with the istock community. I have met amazingly brilliant and talented people from all over the world, and interact with them daily. I've had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of other members at various get togethers. I've taken some of the money I've earned and upgraded my photography equipment from that 3MP Kodak point and shoot to my current Nikon DSLR and assorted lenses. The quality of my annual Christmas card photo of my son has risen exponentially.

Photography is still only my hobby, and istock is still my number one outlet for it. I appreciate the money I earn every day from it (I have a widget on my desktop that plays music every time one of my images is licensed). I just finished IM'ing with a fellow istocker from South Africa who is planning a trip to visit other istockers in Eastern Canada. I'm hoping to drive up for a day trip from my home in New Hampshire. My life is much richer in many many ways from my time as one of the crowd.

Jeff Howe

I coined the term. Thanks for all your comments! Keep 'em coming. I'll reply in more detail later in the day.

doug sims

I am a strong believer in what can be done with web communities, both for profit and for a greater good and open exchange of information.

Doug Sims

Jeff Howe

Quick thought regarding some of the questions Mark raises: Talented amateur or part-time practitioners of any specialized craft could well eventually realize that they possess a special skill, and begin charging accordingly. At least, this theory was advanced by sources I talked to in a number of different fields. It was especially popular amongst TV professionals I met, who believed that it won't be long before anyone who has a couple of hits on Youtube starts looking for an agent before licensing their viral video to, say, Bravo or VH1. This problematizes the crowdsourcing model, naturally, tho I don't think it would affect its underlying robustness. It simply means that crowdsourcing is both a means of contracting for cheap labor as well as a form of discovering new talent. Just a thought...

Rob Sylvan

Speaking of crowds ... there are a lot of comments here that you might find interesting:

Brent Hartson

iStock is to the stock photography industry what Scientology is to the religious industry. Namely, a vaguely disguised pyramid scheme. Stay away!!!

Greg Cohn

Congrats on a fascinating article and a great idea for a blog, Jeff. I've been excited about the possibility to create leverage effects within content marketplaces for a long time, but it has certainly been evolving in unexpected ways. I look forward to seeing how this trend continues to unfold.


"crowdsourcing is both a means of contracting for cheap labor as well as a form of discovering new talent"

Absolutely. In rule #5 of "5 Rules of The New Labor Pool", you state that "The crowd finds the best stuff". In addition, the crowd rewards the contributors of the best stuff. Just ask any of the top photographers at iStockphoto if they're pleased with the thousands of dollars they receive every month in addition to their regular paychecks.

PS> Fantastic article, Jeff!!

Rob Sylvan

Regarding the comment by Brent Harson:
"... Namely, a vaguely disguised pyramid scheme. Stay away!!!"

iStockphoto is neither a pyramid scheme nor even a multi-level marketing program.

It is an agency. Contributors earn money from having images licensed, and the agency earns money for providing/maintaining/marketing the mechanism to make it possible for having images licensed. It is as simple as that.

There is no mechanism for contributors to earn money from other contributors.

It is possible to earn a one time finders fee of $5 for referring a first time buyer. In my 4 years experience with them I have done this once.

I have no experience with Scientology, so I can not speak to that.


The scientology statement “sort-of” works, for me Rob, but the pyramid claim for iStock does ask for some sort of clarification. I did the pyramid thing, “many moons ago,” at a time when I thought it would make me a millionaire and certainly learned the intimate details of conversational psychology!


The step-grand daddy of crowdsourcing, outsourcing, offers some interesting principles to ponder, namely traditional questions like relationships with unions, disruption of services and the like. When can one move from crowdsourcing hypothesis to a beginners manual and who is going to be the most likely author? The first questions that are gong to be asked are; where does one begin, and what company functions will one best be looking at to crowdsource, or will the only risk free transactions be the generic ones? Will the partner / provider question still be relative and more importantly for the many independent “ready to do it folks,” how broadly might crowdsourcing be used by the general population? Alan.

Robert Andrews

Looking forward to it, Jeff.


Jeff - why not give Mark a link in your article?

Jeff Howe

Russ--Mark was the first person I linked to, though as I'm still figuring out how my "typelist" function works (I'm new to blogging) his link is at the bottom of the left-hand frame.


The article didn't talk about the problems in iStock and other micro-stock website swith amateur photos not getting correct releases from models and property owners. I predict this becomes a big issue with buyers who thought they were getting a deal at $1 per image only to get sued later by people in the photos.

Art buyers and marketing people need to realize that cutting corners can hurt their clients and businesses. Getty and the other big player in stock do more to ensure their photos are correctly licensed - because their reputation depends on it.


Rob Sylvan

Regarding RubenRemus' comment:
"The article didn't talk about the problems in iStock and other micro-stock website swith amateur photos not getting correct releases from models and property owners."

Speaking only about iStock, I'd say it wasn't included because it is a non-issue. All images of recognizable faces are required to be model released. All property (objects or real estate) are handled on a case-by-case basis. Subjects that require a property release for commercial use are required to have one or are not accepted. Contributors are supplied with both Property and Model release forms as well as a frequently updated list of subjects that are known to require releases for commercial use.

In any case, people using an image should be aware of all licensing and usage requirements no matter where they acquire them from.

Russell Kord

Regarding getting releases and trademark infringements. I think there may be a small future problem with liability for and its owners.

There are many instances of trademarked places on their site. One example, the beautiful Lions at the front of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in
Manhattan. istockphotos has quite a few images, with a number of RF downloads on these images, and other big agencies like Corbis and Getty Images also
show RM and RF images of this icon. It is of course, trademarked, as is the beatiful Rose Main Reading Room at the library, which is also available as RF for instant download. The front of the library building itself is also trademarked, and the bulding is privately owned.

Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, there are many more. One of istockphotos top RF downloads for New York is the Chrysler Building.
I'd like to be a fly on the wall when the Cease and Desist letters come in to clients who have bought $1 images of images owned by those outfits. Add the statutory damages provisions prescribed by law to willfull infringers (thats the photographer, the library, and the client) and the final invoice could well be more than a dollar.

Of course these trademark owners have to find the uses, and some may not be bothered. The problem with RF imagery however is it is sold to be used for ANYTHING.
ONCE YOU'VE MADE A SALE,the image is out there, worldwide, FOREVER... Many savy designers will know or find out if they need the rights, but many will not know or care. That's where the problems will start.

Fundamentaly though, these are minor problems that can be overcome by better policing by of its contributors. The bigger problem is that most great
photography will no longer be produced, at least not on purpose. That takes time and money and skill, and is simply not possible with a return of 20% on a $1
useage fee. What you will get is millions (literally I expect) of amateurs snapping away until a few great images emerge. Most will be medeocre, produced by people with medeoce skills. Random chance is a great concept, but the only people likely to make money from this business model are those able to aglomerate the eager dabbling of amateur photographers, edit out the junk, and take their 80% off the top. The really smart ones will sell out the company, to a bigger fish scarred about being put out of business.

Companies like Getty and Corbis will see their value collapse with the prices of thier stock photography. Buying istockphoto for $50 million only works if you can shut down all imitators and competitors, and much of the the RF content on istockphotos is already available elsewhere. There will be more "istockphotos", and not even Mr Getty or Mr Gates have enough money to buy and co-opt them all. Thanks to crowdsourcing the barriers to entry into this marketplace are dropping by the minute. Long live Creative Destruction!

Digital cameras have taken away any skill necessary to expose a decent image, composition is a matter of opinion, and distribution is now cheap and easy. Add to this a
willingness to sell the product for less than it cost to produce (what used to be called "dumping" way back when) and you have a delightful boon to consumers of stock imagery.

I am not an economist, but there seem to be some issues with the "spare time" that is devoted by people to produce low cost content. Is'nt that defined as a "good"?
People can chose to spend their time doing what they want, so creating value, however little it may be, is their choice. Crowdsourcing, like illegal immigration, should
help excert some downward pressure on wages and so help keep inflation low, break union power, avoid health coverage and add flexibilty and competitiveness to the economy. This should help improve productivity and increase corporate profits. This will allow employers to add more staff, though not, of course, in the areas being crowdsourced out...

As a photographer, quite apart from the drop in prices from around $275 a few yaers ago for a shot for a one time spot size non-exclusive use in a travel brochure, to around $3 today ( today with all rights, in perpetuity ), my other concern is the general poor execution, predictable imagery taken without skill or consideration for light, that characterises MOST of crowdsourced photography. Many photo buyers are using istockphotos, so the photography is "good enough". Just like products from India and China are good enough. The difference is that those goods will wear out and need to be replaced shortly, but at those prices, who cares. Photography lasts a long time,
people are willing to use a 25 year old photo if is cheap enough and they think nobody will notice the difference. The shelf life of these $1 images will affect photographer earnings long after photographers shooting today are dead and burried.

A diet of cheap, poor quality content, consumed of a long period of time can have some consequences. The results are clear for all to see on the streets and in the malls of this country. But people will consuming anything if its cheap enough, and convince themselves its just as good as the more expensive stuff. Consuming rubbish stock photograhy or video imagery will not give you diabetes or a heart attack, but it will have its consequences. The main consequence will be the widely held belief that great quality photography is possible with a digital camera and anybody can do it. When that happens the few remaining photographers that have the skills to produce great imagery will be left fighting for a smaller and smaller client base, whose response will be...

"I can get close to that image, in stock, for a dollar!"

Yes, close to that image. Close, but no cigar. "But at a dollar, a DOLLAR! Boy it's close enough for me!" That's happening now, today. It will only get worse as
.50 cent downloads appear. With super efficient suppliers, and producers willing to shoot for a credit-line, we could see FREE!

The woes of professional photographers may not be of much consequence, but I get the nasty feeling this will also happen in your industry too, dear reader...


Great comments Russell, much of what you say is correct although for-casting the future of “the rise and power of the ordinary folk who create masses of content whilst “others” wait for the cream to rise, might not be such a sure thing. As a boy I would see the blue tits come to my parent’s council house steps and peck a hole in the milk bottle top to get at the cream. Today, at least here in the windy city, milk is not delivered, has no cream, and the tits appear to have gone elsewhere for nourishment. Some “in the crowd” will see or taste the cream, sooner or later, and who knows what will be created thereof? Yes, many a reader and industry are going to be in the position of the professional photographer, but I predict that there will be quite a few who are going to become the u-tubes and flickers of the future. “A diet of cheap, poor quality content, consumed of a long period of time can have some consequences.” Didn’t that supplant the American Dream and we are already seeing the consequences. American dominance over the world market and the decline of its stature is eroding more rapidly than the polar ice, but the introduction of incredible opportunities through the blogosphere has just started. The traditional bottom-line has become one word, economics. The “on purpose” element is going organic and opportunity has been given to the ordinary folk who still have heart and soul, whilst traditional business structures are still going the opposite route. Alan.

Russell Kord has now been owned by Getty Images for some months. Getty Images has been running a "traditional" stock agency model since its beginnings as a acquirer of existing agencies.It will be interesting Jeff, to see how they treat their professional contributors on one hand, and their new istocker contributors on the other.

For example, if you could get information about the following situations:

1.You could "just sign yourself up" as an istocker, professional contributors had a much harder time getting into thier supply network. Did Getty source new RM talent from among istockers? Do professionals now just sign up as istockers?

2. Royalty percentages. Professional contributors : down ? istockers: up? Both down? Both up? No movement?

3. In the past both Getty and Corbis have aquired agencies and then shut them down and returned contributors material. Will istockphotos have the same fate?
Or will the micro-payment model and crowdsourcing be where Getty focus their efforts to the detrement of RM suppliers? When Imagestate, a small independent
agency went bankrupt in April, Getty aquired a large RF collection of their images, but had no interest in the RM part of the business.

4. How do professional RF suppliers relationship to Getty change? Will Getty use istockers RF production as a club to drive down professional RF suppliers royalty cut?

5. Corbis. Second to Getty but smaller. Will it try to get into the crowdsourcing arena by aquiring the remaining micro-payment suppliers? Was there a bidding
war between them over ? Can Corbis survive without an RF micro-payment division?

I have no idea about any of these things, perhaps you can find out. More than any other business the stock photography industry should yeild insights into crowdsourcing unavailable eleswhere. Meeting of product and medium, you know what I mean?

One thing is for certain, both Getty and Corbis have access to vast amounts of capital that have allowed them to aquire a position in the stock photo industry that their poor (literally) unfortunate competitors have not enjoyed. This model has allowed them to dominate stock photo markets from New York to Paris to Melbourne. It has been effective.

I am surprised it has not attracted the attention of government regulatory agencies yet, but obviously it has fallen under the radar, probably because the effects have been multi-national, thier true market share is unknown, thier trading practices with thier customers are private, and prices for stock imagery have seen falls, not increases. Stock photography is also, really, "small potatoes".

The question now is whether they are able to exercise control over the RF micro-payment business by aquiring websites when they become a treat, and shutting them down or incorporating them into thier business effectively. This is no small task.

If they can do this, Getty and Corbis may survive. If they cannot, the're done. They will suffer the same fate as the RM agencies that have slowly but surely closed around the world in the face of a much more powerful competitor. The difference now is that this new competitor is an aggregation of small insignificant producers, made powerful by the internet, further empowered by most people's willingness to buy anything as long as its cheap.

Don't you just love the forces of globalisation and technological change? The whole process is replete with irony... The forces are so big... The speed of change just gets faster than you ever thought possible... The turnarounds are so unforseen... It's just so much FUN!!!

Good Luck, and Goodbye!

Ashfaq Tunio

I like the way you have expressed the idea of crowdsourcing. Some time ago, I set up a web-page at where I said that in the future, the Internet would help people contract out (buy and sell) spare time and skills from all over the world. Right now, millions of person-hours of expertise, talent and time are being wasted. People are dying because of diseases for which we already have the cure, just because there are no doctors in the area. Experts on almost every subject are available, but their knowledge is not being leveraged because they cannot reach the place where they are needed, do not find out about available opportunities, or the potential buyer does not have the awareness of their existence. I forsee the rise of a new Ten-Billion Person Organization (yes, I take credit for this expression), where boundaries between corporations and organizations have dissolved, and the (to be) 10 billion people in the world are all part of one humongous organization, buying and selling products, services, time, expertise, talent, etc. Visit my website for more details. Thanks.

Dave Swanner

It will be interesting to see how the stock photography industry shakes out.

One effect that has not been mentioned is that istockphoto has increased the number of people that are using stock photography.

I give presentations on a regular basis. Before istockphoto, I had never used professional or stock photography.

I now will buy about $30-40 of stock photography from istockphoto per presentation. While I know that pales in comparison to the amount stock photographers would get per photo before the internet, new markets *are* being opened up.

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