Print media might be in decline, but that hasn't meant a decline for the stock house, not necessarily. If they were bright enough to diversify and offer digital media such as music and video footage in addition to images, they'd build for themselves a relatively sound business model as digital media has taken off. Today's $3.3 billion acquisition of Getty Images by the Carlyle Group goes some way to supporting that.
Getty Images was bought by Hellman Friedman for $2.4 billion in 2008; earlier this year the private equity firm began to consider its options for the world's largest supplier of stock imagery and footage. When it came down to a choice between sale and flotation, sale won. The markets have been too volatile this year to risk and floatation and other investors were given a chance to get grubby paws on Getty.
It would probably be overstating it to describe the ensuing sale process as a bidding war. The Carlyle Group and CVC Capital Partners both made moves towards acquisition, but Carlyle's winning bid of $3.3 billion was less than Hellman Friedman had expected. The initial expectation had been for $4 billion and this was subsequently lowered to $3.6 billion. Still, publicly, Hellman Friedman is insisting its content with the price.
Carlyle does have the controlling stake in Getty, but Getty's founders, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, together with the Getty family, have rolled substantially all of their ownership interests into the purchase.
What then does this mean for the thousands of photographers with millions of images licensed through Getty? No mention was made of the building blocks of the business in the press release. Eliot Merril, Carlyle's Managing Director, did state that: 'We look forward to partnering with Mark Getty, Jonathan Klein and the talented Getty Images management team. We will harness Carlyle's financial resources and global network to help take Getty Images to the next stage of product innovation and global growth.' Carlyle's a private equity firm, its primary interest is towards its investors, it says so in big letters on its website. I doubt that it has very much interest in photography, photographers, or photographers' rights beyond the profit that it is able to lever from them.
Carlyle only has to maintain Getty's current balancing act of paying out miserable percentages to its contributing photographers on licences, but simultaneously retaining its reputation as the world's leading stock house to stay successful. Buyers go there because they get the range that they want; sellers stick with it because of potential sales, no matter if they only get a 20% cut on a royalty-free licence. As a photographer, if you don't have the guts or the means or the alternative to walk away from Getty, it leaves you in a very difficult position.
Getty Images might be selling media on behalf of its creators, but its allegiance isn't to them. It's to its investors. The sale of a stock house from one group of investors to another has done nothing other than to weaken the position of the photographer and strengthen that of the investor. It has demonstrated that stock houses can be regarded as a successful investment where the producers are of little concern to the investors, provided that they make a return on their outlay. Even if nothing changes for the photographer to her or his detriment, the move does not signify an improvement in their circumstances. No, it's all about the investor.
Photography: a great business if you're not a photographer.