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Fotoglif and the art of converting infringers into partners

July 7, 2009 | 12:01 am

online advertising, blogs, photographs, Fotoglif, copyrights Michael Betts once owned a photography studio, but for the past couple of years he's made a business out of distributing images rather than taking them. Today his Toronto-based company, DigiSphere, offers the latest iteration of Fotoglif, a site that provides bloggers and other Web publishers free images taken by the same professional shooters who supply news agencies around the world. Previously, Fotoglif compensated the agencies for the shots that were published online; now it will cut bloggers in on the action too.

What's interesting here is how Fotoglif confronts a problem common to copyright holders online. Just as it's relatively easy to find and copy media online, it's brain-dead simple for Web publishers to grab photos from around the Net and slap them onto their sites. Sure, there are companies such as Attributor that crawl the Web to search for unauthorized uses of copyrighted material, helping the owners of the material to identify infringers. But the scale of the infringing is vast, and it's not clear how much return a copyright holder might get from a big investment in enforcement.

Instead of trying to track and stop infringers, Fotoglif's strategy is to offer online publishers something better than free ...

Each image in its library — it receives 20,000 to 30,000 new news-related photos daily from such partners as Getty Images and Thomson Reuters, Betts said — comes with a display ad attached to the base. The ad generates revenue that's split between Fotoglif, the copyright holder and the publisher. To use an image, bloggers merely embed the code supplied by Fotoglif (it's JavaScript) into their post. The image and the ad is then delivered by Fotoglif's servers.

The value proposition is simple for bloggers and other publishers: It is truly better than free. There are, however, some trade-offs. The ads are chosen by Fotoglif, not by the publisher, although Betts said the company wants to develop a way for publishers to block ads from competitors. And at this point, the images are available in only three sizes. An example of the smallest format is shown to the right; the ad beneath the photo is the one supplied by Fotoglif.

Those limitations may not matter to Fotoglif's target audience: bloggers and small Web publishing businesses. "We are not trying to market ... photos to the Los Angeles Times or the New York Post," Betts said. It's focused narrowly on the folks who don't have the wherewithal to pay the fees that the photo agencies ordinarily command — the ones who've been copying and reusing images without attribution or compensation. Nor is the revenue generated by the ads "terribly monumental," Betts said. "At this point it's a small operation," he added. The goal is to create broad networks of sites that use the photos, achieving the kind of scale that can attract bigger advertisers and larger payments.

In short, rather than trying to sell its partners' copyrighted images to an audience that's reluctant to pay for content, Fotoglif is using that content to gain a presence in the blogosphere that it can monetize. It's not monetizing the photos directly, it's capitalizing on the activity around them — in particular, in the public's interest in news and commentary from sources beyond traditional media outlets. And having tried for several months to build support among bloggers just by offering them the free use of images, Fotoglif has upped the ante by promising to pay websites that use its ad-equipped photos a share of the revenue. Such an all-carrot, no-stick approach seems rare in the copyright world, and Fotoglif and its agency partners deserve credit for trying it.

Photo: Joanelle Romero performs a sacred Indian traditional drum and song live in front of the Jackson family home in Encino on July 6. Credit: Giulio Marcocchi / Sipa Press, via Newscom and Fotoglif

— Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.