Lori Carey Photography

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Review of ImageSpan's LicenseStream

I was really excited when I sw an announcement last Thursday about LicenseStream from ImageSpan. With the recent failures of PhotoShelter Collection and Digital Railroad, Getty's purchase of Jupiter and other unrest in the stock photography industry, one thing we've all been discussing is the need to not rely solely on the agencies and start putting our attention into ways to license directly from our own websites. But many of us have been struggling with finding the ideal way to implement stock licensing. The announcement of LicenseStream was perfect timing since I am in the middle of tearing apart and redesigning my entire website and knew I needed to make a decision about how I was going to handle the stock licensing going forward. My current process is entirely manual and clumsy at best.

It's relatively simple for photographers who do Royalty Free licensing to automate their process, but Rights Managed licensing creates a few complications due to the number of parameters that go into creating a license and calculating the fee. Many of the photographers I talked to were like me in that we had various manual processes that 'worked' but felt were less than ideal in terms of client friendliness and the amount of backend manual work required. Since it wasn't automated, if a client was in a rush and you weren't in the office (and didn't have staff to handle it for you), you'd probably lose the sale. Ideally we wanted an automated system that would allow a client to select the licensing terms using the PLUS License Generator, have the licenses embedded in the image's metadata with the PLUS License Embedder, and have all of this tied directly into an automated pricing matrix which would work with the existing shopping carts on our websites. LicenseStream promises to do all this plus generate invoices, provide Content Tracking, handle the processing of royalty payments for a 5% fee, provide reporting functions, register the image with their Registry Database (important in light of the pending Orphan Works legislation), and provide for publishing the images to Google Base (FWIW, more on this later). It also promises to track infringements and automate sending bills or takedown notices. Oh, I did mention that LicenseStream has Plugins for Bridge and Lightroom? That was a big plus for me since I upload to my webhost directly from Bridge. I like being able to do everything from one place.

Making a long term commitment to a brand new product is scary, especially one for your business that will function as a vital link between you and your customer. I began my quest to seek knowledge and reassurance from the LicenseStream website but wasn't having much luck. It took quite a bit of digging to find some of the information I was looking for. For instance, a chart comparing the Standard and Pro accounts is only accessible by clicking on the word "revenue" on that page. That is also the only way I could find what the standard storage amount is, and how much it will cost to purchase additional storage - important things to know when you're contemplating thousands of high resolution files.

Frustrated by trying to find everything I wanted to know before making a commitment and paying for a one-year subscription, I sent an e-mail asking some questions last Thursday night. I was disappointed when I hadn't received a response by close-of-business Friday, but let it slide. However when I still hadn't received a response by late Tuesday afternoon I began having serious doubts about doing business with ImageSpan. If a company intends to develop a long-term relationship with me, act as an intermediary between me and my customer, and especially handle financial transactions for me, I simply must have a better response time, period. No room for error. And I said as much in a stock forum where we were discussing whether or not to give LicenseStream a try. Within the hour I received an e-mail from LicenseStream with the answers to my questions, an apology for the delay and an offer I couldn't refuse (and no, it had nothing to do with writing a review). I sincerely hope that ImageSpan ups their game in this area because I do really like LicenseStream so far, but this will be a deal breaker if it happens after I have content with them. My standard for this SmugMug; even though their customer support is via e-mail only, I have never had to wait more than an hour for a response. In fact, I usually receive a response within minutes. They truly understand their role in the relationship between me and my customer, and always exceed my expectations in satisfying both me and my customer. They've set a very high bar, and now I expect nothing less.

So I admit that I was skeptical at first, but now that I've been using the program I've got to say that I really, really like it so far. There are some little things that I think can be improved, but overall I am finding LicenseStream easy to use and it seems like it could possibly be the ideal solution.

Click "Read More" to see my experiences using the program and how I plan to integrate it into my website.

I signed up for a LicenseStream Creator Pro account (very simple and fast process) and downloaded and installed the PlugIn for Adobe Bridge. I then launched Bridge, selected a file that was already with an agency and prepped for stock licensing, and started looking for where the PlugIn was installed. I finally went back to the website and downloaded the Getting Started for Bridge guide to find that the PlugIn is accessed by right-clicking on the image. In the pop-up you will see an option to "Upload file(s) to LicenseStream". The upload was fast with one file, but I still need to try uploading a batch of images to determine the speed.

A browser window opens to the LicenseStream Activate Content window, where you have the opportunity to review and edit some metadata, including the file id, caption, description and keywords, as well as choose between Rights Managed, Royalty Free and Rights Simple licensing before activating the file. The Preview button next to the Royalty Group merely tells you the Royalty Split between you and LicenseStream, which is 95/5% for the Pro accounts. There is a very basic keyword generator on this page, but I think that anyone who is used to keywording files for stock already has a process in place and will not find it of much use. It is not clear what the keyword limit is; this example file had 30 keywords and when I attempted to add another I could not. I'm not sure if this is due to a keyword limit or a character limit. Either way, I think that is still sufficient room for proper keywording. And I also noted that all keywords are sorted in alphabetical order. That's an important warning because most of us are used to entering keywords in order of importance; I was getting very frustrated that my keyword order kept changing until I noted the reason for it.

You also indicate whether or not you have a Model Release and/or Property Release on this screen, and you can choose to add the image to any Content Group you may have created. Everything on this screen is intuitive and easy to understand.

Clicking the bright green "Activate" button in the lower right hand corner takes you to a confirmation screen. You can then choose to activate more content or view your available content. You will manage your files from the Available Content Screen.

Each thumbnail has several icons. The camera in the upper left corner tells me this is an image file (LicenseStream an also handles other digital content such as audio and video). The RM in the upper right corner tells me that I have chosen Rights Managed Licensing. The five icons across the bottom are to Add Content to Lightroom, License Content, Publish Content, Manage Content and Download Content. For purposes of this review I'm going to focus on Manage Content and Publish Content.

Manage Content allows you to change your default licensing profile, manage your royalty information including setting up royalty splits, and set any content restrictions on an image file. For the photo I uploaded of Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama, I needed to restrict usage to editorial only since I don't have a model release. This process was a bit cumbersome as I had to individually select the usages I was restricting. In some instances I could select a broad usage such as Advertising>All Media Types>All Formats>All Distribution Formats. In other instances I need to drill down further, for example Motion Picture & TV, where editorial usage would be allowed but advertising and commercial usage would not and each had to be selected individually. It is a little confusing to have to work your way through the entire pick list and create a separate restriction for each commercial use for a non-released image. I would really like to see LicenseStream create one restriction category that would eliminate all of the commercial options at once.

Publish Content allows you to publish your image to GoogleBase if you choose, and generates code for an embedded linked thumbnail that you can publish to a website, blog, or other place you choose. I'm not convinced of the usefulness of publishing to GoogleBase just yet. It doesn't seem to have much of a following since its debut in 2005, but perhaps it has a usefulness in the inner workings of Google of which I am not aware. Based on some comments I've seen out in the webosphere, some people seem to be under the impression that LicenseStream is another stock photograph agency who will market their images; that is not at all true. LicenseStream is a product for photographers who market their own images.

What I was most interested in was how I could integrate this into my website. It is very important to note before using the code in the Publish to Your Website Box that the license type defaults to the "Contact Me Model", which requires a potential buyer to contact you and negotiate the terms of the license directly. You can use the drop down box next to "Update Exbed Code" to change that to "Quick License", "Category License" or "Custom License" if you choose. The explanation of each of those models on that page is not of any help if this is your first time on this page. The Help pdf was not much help either. As a matter of fact, it was so hard to find out exactly what these license models are that I cannot locate the correct page right to refer you to it now. I can tell you that if you want your buyers to be able to select any licensing terms, as they would do with an agency, you need to select the Custom License Model. They will then have the opportunity to select all of the various parameters everyone is used to, and pricing will be calculated accordingly.

After selecting a licensing model you will need to update the code by clicking "Update Ex-Bed Code". You can then copy and paste the code wherever you choose. When a buyer clicks on the thumbnail to license the image, he/she will be brought to the LicenseStream portal to complete the process.

Two things I think could be improved on the licensing page. First is that the picker for Circulation is ordered in such a way that I think it is frustrating to find the range you are looking for and too easy to make a mistake. Instead of being ordered numerically, it is ordered as follows:

  • up to 1 million

  • up to 1,000

  • up to 10 million

  • up to 10,000

  • up to 100

  • up to 100,000

  • up to 2 million

  • up to 2,500

  • etc...

The other thing I'm not entirely in love with is that you really can't tell how you are pricing an image unless you just play around with licensing screen as if you were a buyer. LicenseStream says their pricing is based on on-going price surveys and is customizable at will, but it appears to me that you can only customize the pricing when you are creating a license directly for a specific buyer. I have not been able to find any way to change the pricing for the published thumbnails with automated licensing, and I have not been able to find any documentation about it. While we may be used to this when some agencies market and sell our work, when I do my own marketing I'd like to at least know how much I am selling an image for, and ideally have some control over it. If LicenseStream does have this ability they need to do a better job with telling users how to find the information.

I initially had some concern over uploading unwatermarked images, not knowing how LicenseStream would display my photo. My concerns were allayed when I clicked through as if I were a buyer and saw that the larger preview available from LicenseStream is well watermarked.

The thumbnail code worked well with my website, but as I thought about the best way to integrate LicenseStream into my site I realized there was a better solution. I usually upload sharpened sRGB files to my website for printing purposes and upload separate unsharpened Adobe RBG files to lightboxes for stock clients as requested. Viewers can check the images as large I want to allow, up to original size, in an onscreen lightbox. My agency stock files are of course in Adobe RGB also, and how to automate having files with separate color profiles on my website without apparent redundancy has been a dilemma for a while. The thumbnail view from LicenseStream isn't large enough to allow a potential buyer to make a decision to purchase, and I was hesitant to create galleries of thumbnails for my stock files. I realized that I could modify the code to eliminate the thumbnail and change the font color of "License this Image" to bright red. I could then insert the code into the captions for each of the image files on my website and a red "License this Image" appears under any photo I have submitted to License Stream. I may add my own custom graphic to make it even more obvious. This gives me the best of both worlds; very large watermarked images optimized for viewing on computer monitors in sRGB, directly linked to the Adobe RGB file uploaded to LicenseStream. I love it, a perfect solution for me! This is everything I had been dreaming of for my website, plus more.

The LicenseStream interface for buyers is well organized and easy to use, and there is an option for a buyer to contact you directly. Any content restrictions are obvious, and the Usage/License Generator will be intuitive for anyone who has used a similar automated process. I also was very happy to find that LicenseStream does prevent a buyer from building a license for a restricted usage.

Clicking Build License takes the buyer to a screen where they can review all of the information concerning the image and the license, enter their contact information and see the fee quoted before clicking Checkout. The checkout process generates an invoice and offers the option to pay by credit/debit card or with PayPal.

The one downside to licensing via a website this way is that it appears that licenses can only be purchased one a time, and if multiple images are being licensed the buyer either needs to handle each transaction separately or contact you directly so you can set up a lightbox and prepare an invoice. I recommend having the buyer contact you directly , especially since there is no link from LicenseStream back to your website. Setting up a lightbox is easy as clicking on the Lightbox icon of the file in your Available Content window in LicenseStream. Clicking on the License Content icon will take you through the License Generator and Invoice Builder process. All seems very straightforward and easy to use.

I'm very impressed with how easy it is to integrate a fully-automated process into my existing website. LicenseStream is very fast and easy to use, it is smooth and seamless, and the integration with Adobe Bridge makes it fit right in to my existing workflow.

A little more user documentation would be welcome, and I will again emphasize the need for outstanding customer service. Hopefully now that I am a subscriber and not just a potential subscriber, I will see a quicker response if I run into any problems. Better yet, I hope not to run into any need to contact them in the future, but we all know how that goes when running a business.

If the rest of LicenseStream works as well as the parts I have tested so far, I think we have a winner.

---Last minute update with some additional information:

I added several more images to LicenseStream now and can see one thing that is going to become extremely cumbersome very quickly. Once your files are Activated, you need to complete the process of defining a license and "publishing" to obtain the code for your website in the Manage Content screen. However, in the Manage Content screen there is no way to sort your image files. That means that your newly uploaded files are scattered amongst the uploaded and reviewed files, scattered amongst your completed and "published" content. You can identify the published files by their green P icon, but with only 8 thumbnails per page it will quickly become time consuming to sort through page after page trying to locating files that still need to be processed.

There is a nifty search feature that will allow you to search by things such as keyword or license type, but it would be really nice if there was a way to easily sort the newly uploaded and waiting to be processed files.

I still really like LicenseStream, and I hope that after receiving feedback from users they will make a few improvements to make it easier to use.

---one more late edit: I neglected to mention that the uploader truncates the file description, which means you must go through the time-consuming process of copying and pasting lengthy captions into the files during the activation process. Not bad if you only upload a few files at a time, but a real pain when you're processing a large batch. Would really like to see this fixed.


  1. Hi --
    I too am using LS, but would love to know how you were able to proceed into the licensing process as a buyer? I would like to do that very much so I can see what buyers would see.

    Could you perhaps point the way to doing that? It would be much appreciated>

    Clair Dunn
    Photographer member of SAA and the PLUScoalition

  2. Hi Clair, all I did was click the "License this Image" at the bottom of one of my photos and it takes me directly to the licensing process as a buyer.

    If you have yours set up differently than I do, feel free to poke around mine because I agree that it is very important to know what your buyer is going to see and the process they will need to go through.

    I'm slowly working my through the one-by-one coding, but I have several images set up in my Doheny Blues Festival 2005 gallery. Look for the red "License this Image" beneath the caption of the photo on the right side of the screen (not the thumbnail). Feel free to click through and play around with the buyer interface, it's easy enough for you to cancel any shopping cart when you're done. :)

    I'll write another post later today describing how I modified the code to work this way with my site.

  3. Just noticed this...the gallery I mentioned in my reply is a clickable link, I just neglected to color code it properly...

  4. Thanks for reviewing this. But I just wanted to be sure that you knew that, for a few years now, the PhotoShelter Personal Archive has the entire fotoQuote pricing database incorporated, and can therefore license RM images unattended and automatically. In addition, the customization features make it possible to add all of their functionality to your website seamlessly.

    (I am one of the founders of PhotoShelter.)

    Also, a new customization template system has been created for those people who don't want to mess around with CSS code. (Click on my name to see the customized site I made for myself using a template.)

  5. Thank you Grover, I am very familiar with the PhotoShelter Archive being that I am former contributor to the PhotoShelter Collection! The PSA has a lot of great tools and functionality for people, and now that they've added some ability to customize (which they didn't have when I was a member), it is a good alternative for people who don't have their own website, don't want to pay to have someone build a site or don't want to learn how to customize their own. I will be watching with interest to see the direction PSA takes in the future.

    In addition to the ability to completely customize a site, one of the biggest benefits of SmugMug is that SM offers UNLIMITED storage for one (very reasonable) set price. Most other alternatives, including PSA, charge by the amount of storage one requires.

    There are many good solutions out there for 'togs who want to showcase their work. Each photographer just needs to find the right fit between pricing, functionality, ability to customize, storage needs...

  6. Mentioned at:

  7. Hi, Lori -
    I was very interested in your review of LicenseStream since I was considering signing up. I did click on one of your photos and filled in the licensing information, using the parameters that I recently used to license a photo to McGraw Hill. The buyer complained that my price of $450 was the highest they had gotten for that particular textbook. The price that LicenseStream came up with for the same usage was $2495!! I think they really need to work on using realistic prices before anybody can use them for pricing. I wish their prices were correct but the textbook publishers will never pay that much.

    Thanks for your review. I learned a lot and may sign up with the "contact me" for pricing.


  8. Tina, thank you reporting your findings. Since Gary's post I have had several people test out the pricing and receive reasonable quotes, so I was hoping his result was just a one off.

    Based on your results I tried using the Quick License and Category License Models as possible alternatives to see if the pricing was still out of line for textbook use, and it definitely was.

    I'll post an update to my blog tonight, along with easy instructions for changing the license model on any photos people have have already coded.

    I'm glad I stopped coding my photos as soon as I saw Gary's post...not too many to change.