The first reply to Lam's post asked if Time paid for the image, and Lam replied, "yes only 30.00 from Istock," meaning iStockphoto, an online agency. Stock photographs are existing images that can be licensed for various uses for a one-time fee. They're used a lot in marketing, packaging, advertising and journalism.
What followed was a conversation among photographers about stock photography that sounds a lot like the conversations journalists are having about online content.
After various notes of congratulations were posted by other photographers, one of them wrote, "You got screwed," pointing out that commissioned, as opposed to stock, photographs on Time's cover are worth thousands. "Photographers are to blame for that $30 option," the poster wrote.
In response to one poster's congratulations to Lam for his "accomplishment," forum moderator Dan Hood wrote, "No the real accomplishment here is that a huge for profit corporation got a cover that should of cost several thousand dollars for peanuts and the photographer is happy about it."
"How wonderful for you!" wrote another poster. "You get to work and work and work to produce great imagery and a multi-national, multi-billion dollar company with an advertising budget in the tens of millions gets to use your image ON THE COVER for $30."
Another photographer wrote that it bothered him "when someone doesn't know that their work is valuable, and that they could have easily gotten more than $30 no matter what their experience is. The point is that you deserve the compensation NOW, regardless of your experience. TIME wanted to use that image ... they should pay the fair rate (I don't think it's $30)."
And yet another wrote, "Companies gain ... not the photographer. A fine example of why not to use stock. If there was no stock sites companies would have to pay someone their rates which would keep them in their job for another week."
Sound familiar? Is that last post not the same argument newspaper executives make when they say they made a huge mistake by putting their content on the Web for free? If only we didn't give this stuff away, people would have bought it!
Only stock photography isn't some disruptive, newfangled thing. As with many types of commerce, the Web has made it easier to be both a buyer and a seller of stock photography, but the practice predates radio, never mind the Internet.
Saying that if photographers all refused to do stock photography they'd all get paid more is like saying that if restaurants all refused to give customers napkins without charging they'd all make a bundle on napkin sales. It's like saying that if local bands refused to play for drinks at dive bars, they'd all make good money playing music.
It's also like saying that if news organizations stopped giving away content on the Web, people would pay for news content online. It's absurd.
The posters in that forum who are making that argument are failing, or refusing, to understand basic economics, if not human nature. All photographers are not going to refuse to do stock photography. The ones who do refuse will simply be opening up the market for those willing to sell their pictures cheaply, either because they're not in it for the money or because they can make a profit on volume.
And those arguing that Time should have paid more for this stock photo because it sometimes pays more for other photos, or because it has a lot of money, are forgetting a little thing called supply and demand.
We should note, though, that because Time prints so many copies, it is likely it had to pay iStockphoto for an unlimited-run license, and that its cost was more like $125 than $30. Still nowhere near thousands, and we should also note that Lam, the photographer, was thrilled with his Time cover at a price of $30, and plenty of his colleagues were thrilled for him.
The same pricing dynamic is in play in journalism. The price is not set by how much time, effort, talent or experience went into making the product, and it's not set by how much money the customer has. It's set by supply and demand. The supply of stock photography is very large. The supply of general news content is huge.
If Time hadn't found Lam's stock photo of coins in a jar for $30, or $125, it would have found a similar photo for a similar price. If news consumers can't get their news online for free from their favorite news organization, they'll find it for free somewhere else.
What happened with Lam's photo is not a failure of the system, not a case of photographers eating their own and not a matter of big, rich Time magazine taking advantage of the little guy. I doubt those photographers would expect Time, because it has such a big budget, to pay $3 for a postage stamp or $20 a pound for the office coffee.
What happened with Lam's photo is simply the way the industry works. Time paid what it paid for that image because that's about what it was worth.
When the barrier to entry is low, the supply of goods is large and the alternatives available to the buyer many, the price is going to be low. Wishing it were otherwise, as the photographers are doing in that online forum and as opponents of free content do in Future of Journalism nerdland, will not make it otherwise.