Date: 2004-06-09 Category: Interviews
fotoLibra gets it picture perfectBy Basheera Khan
Watch out, Getty; step aside, Corbis - fotoLibra has arrived. With its concept of the Image Warehouse, this digital picture library is one of the most recent Welsh companies making things happen in the realm of digital innovation. Quite simply, fotoLibra sells digital images to those who would use them - newspapers, magazines, design companies, publishing houses, websites, mobile phone users - just about anyone who needs a digital image for any purpose.
What differentiates this digital David from its Goliath competitors is this: it accepts contributions from the seasoned professional photographer, the amateur hobbyist and the snap-happy beginner. If you shoot photographs, fotoLibra wants to know about it. The company runs a membership-based service which allows members to upload their digital images to the fotoLibra website. Each photographer retains copyright, and suggests keywords to categorize the image, which are then marketed to professional picture researchers, assisting in their hunt for original images to suit any purpose.
The usage rights to those images are covered by 1,447 price points, covering every imaginable scenario in which an image might be used. When a publisher buys a fotoLibra image, the company splits the fee between itself and the photographer. The other primary aspect of the service is the security it affords photographers. With images uploaded to secure servers in trusted data centres, fotoLibra offers its members the assurance of image integrity, regardless of anything that may befall the photographers physical portfolio. The need for such security is paramount for every photographer, says Gwyn Headley, company founder and fotoLibra member, and he speaks from experience.
"Its what I call the cold water tank moment. I was in London, and my caretaker in Wales rang me up and said, Youve had a disaster. What had happened was that the cold water tank in my loft had broken and had burst. And it deposited it contents on the room below, which was the room in which we had all our family albums, all our family photographs. My father was a keen photographer and lived all around the world in the 30s and 50s and 60s. My grandfather, who was a Welsh country parson, was a very keen early adopter; he was taking photographs in the 1890s, and I was standing there in a pool of water holding a wodge of soaked cardboard, thinking, all gone. Our visual family history just vanished.
"I thought, if only Id scanned these, if only Id digitised these, if only Id kept them. Many of them had interest over and above family interest, but were actually records of people, events, places, [pictures] which simply cant be taken again. Theyre records lost forever. And it took me about 2 hours to think, theres a business here. Because now, weve got the things in place to be able to do this. If Id had the idea five years ago Id have sobbed, and gone away and been able to do nothing more. But I knew enough about technology to know that this could be done."
Headley, whose background is in book publishing, says there are four major factors which have contributed to the circumstances in which a service like fotoLibras Image Warehouse concept can be successful. Firstly, and somewhat unsurprisingly, there is the increasing availability of broadband Internet access which enables speedy up- and downloading of files. Secondly, the proliferation of scanners for home usage has encouraged people to digitize their photo albums, and then wonder, now what? FotoLibra provides the answer to that question, he says.
Thirdly, there is the plummeting price of digital storage, which make fotoLibras life a lot easier, and lastly, there is the explosion in digital cameras.
"Film cameras are plummeting, digital cameras are rocketing, and its just so easy. Plug it in, upload it. Its a 1-2-3 process; you choose your picture, you caption and keyword it, and you press click. Bang - thats it. Your picture is on the market and it can be bought anywhere in the world."
"So we are the worlds first entirely digital, entirely online picture library, with the ability to take pictures from 1842 to the present day. We take something that could be sitting in your attic or in your family album or in your head and waiting to be interpreted through your brilliant use of the lens, and we will commercialise that and try and make some money for you from it."
"Its a huge market, its much bigger than anybody imagines. Across Europe, I think its db1.2 billion in the last recorded year which is 2002. Every time you pick up a book or a magazine or a newspaper or look at an advertisement, the pictures you see there have been bought by someone, whether commissioned or not. And all these pictures have either got to be stolen or bought, and stolen they are," says Headley - but not off fotoLibras site.
While members have to pay a monthly subscription if they upload more than six pictures, anyone may browse the website free of charge. But anyones attempts to nab an image will be scuppered thanks to what Headley says is another first for a British company; digital object identifiers DOIs encoded into each image which allows for phenomenally sophisticated identification and tracking, in much the same way that barcodes or ISBNs do.
DOIs are developed the International DOI Foundation. Created in 1998, the International DOI Foundation supports the need of the intellectual property community in the digital environment by developing and promoting of the DOI system as a common infrastructure for content management.
"Not only does [a DOI] tell you what the picture contains, but it can track an audit trail so it can follow the picture where its gone. Its persistent, in that you have to pay a rental for it every year, so its not just like youre allocated a number and thats it for life, you have to sustain that. We pay for that sustenance of the DOIs for our members. This will mean, when we implement it, that if youre for example a newspaper publisher in Buenos Aires, and you want a picture of a street-fight in Johannesburg, and you type in the keywords Johannesburg, street fight, etc, into Google or any other search engine and youre looking for a picture, up will come a fotoLibra picture, because it has a DOI, which Google can spot [and treat preferentially]," explains Headley.
The company launched in March 2004, and is currently raising funds to start actively promoting its services, but even without any fanfare, the site is attracting new members at a rate of about 20 per day. The plan is to launch officially to the professional picture buyers market when the database of images uploaded hits 25,000. Headley is confident the site will hit this milestone by October this year, if not sooner.
Until then, Headley says, fotoLibra will be exploring other avenues in which to expand its offering. Its currently one of the incubator businesses in the @Wales Digital Media Initiatives Cardiff Bay offices, but although fotoLibra is finding many opportunities for collaboration with fellow incubatees, Headley is keen to move the business back to his hometown of Harlech in Gwynedd, and will do so depending on availability of the broadband Internet access which he says is so severely lacking in rural Wales. "This is digital media," he says, "so we can be anywhere we want to be - and we want to be in Harlech."