My friend Michael Yamashita is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met and his 21st century intellectual property challenge is to challenges what he is to people. He’s a photographer who has shot enormous projects, mostly for the National Geographic, over the past 35 years. He has shot the US-Canadian border end-to-end, the Mekong River from the source to the mouth, the path of Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to China on the Silk Road (which runs through Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan), the entire length of the Great Wall of China, and countless other places that are documented by very few people. (Note: because Mike’s site is built in Flash, I can’t deeplink to each of these topics. You can navigate your way there through “images” on the home page.) And a camera in Yamashita’s hands is like a guitar in Clapton’s or a bat in Ted Williams’s.
What makes Mike so interesting personally is that he’s been to all these places armed with a curiosity and an engaging personality that means that he brings back lots of very personal stories and a real understanding of the mentality of the place. Thinking about what makes his intellectual property challenge so interesting could be throwing off some lessons.
The National Geographic has always purchased specific uses of the photojournalism it underwrites, leaving the copyright with the photographers. Over the first 20 or 25 years that Mike shot, the revenue from stock — pictures he had taken for a purpose he’d been paid for but which he could now sell again — just rose steadily. Every year he added the images from another major project or two.
And even in the early part of the this century, when the photo stock business began to soften pretty obviously, Mike’s sales were slower than most to take the hit. He had many pictures that couldn’t be replaced by “the crowd”. And some can never be replaced at all. When you’ve shot the Buddhas in the wilds of Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban shortly thereafter, you have pictures nobody else can go get.
So Mike’s instinct was to protect the copyright and price of his pictures, not to follow the increasingly conventional wisdom of making them viral. When you know the crowd can’t duplicate your work, it means it can continue to command high prices.
But not forever. Mike’s stock sales have now found the level everybody else’s has found: much lower. Yet there are still very rare pictures…
We were discussing all of this yesterday at a barbeque on Mike’s deck in a sylvan spot in northern New Jersey. Mike is smart and not hidebound; he recognizes that the world is changing. And even as he continues planning and working on three major assignments in Asia that will keep him busy for the next 18-24 months, he sees that his stock business is cratering, the funding for major assignments such as he has done for several decades is disappearing, and his future employment will be about exploiting his “brand”: teaching, lecturing, and producing and hosting documentary films about the places he knows that almost nobody else does (a career which he has already begun.)
What we realized through conversation was that only a small percentage of Mike’s pictures have the characteristics that make them (theoretically) worth “protecting.” On Saturday, Mike shot his local town’s annual Fourth of July parade (which featured Martha and the Vandellas) and got lots of great pictures that have no real commercial market. But lots of them would great on your 4th of July party invitation next year.
We further realized that the value of the brand Mike is nurturing, his name, is directly proportional to the number of people who know it and, even more important, to the number of people who own it and treasure it. That argues for free and viral distribution of his images (as long as they are prominently “branded”.) Mike saw quickly that the opportunities for teaching and lecturing revenues would be enhanced by free and viral distribution of IP.
The other thing we realized is that even as specialist a photographer as Mike can employ further verticalization to enhance his interaction with his audiences. Mike’s web site shows you his archive and allows you to buy prints. The archive is set up for the professional user (registration required) with search enabled and story ideas organized. But it is not set up for the Google searcher who wants to find Great Wall or Angkor Wat photos. He is not search-engine optimized to show up for those searches, and his site doesn’t pull that kind of material together. Yet those search terms should be his best friends, leading to unparallelled collections of images.
So as carefully- and cleverly-constructed as Mike’s branding site is, we recognized that there are two elements that need to be added to his strategy.
One is that he has to operate on two tracks. He has to separate out the relative handful of his hundreds of thousands of stock images that really do have scarcity supporting their price and protect those, but the best strategy for everything else is to push it out there. Brand it with a signature or stamp of some kind but make it possible for everybody to use it and spread it.
The other is that he needs to “niche” himself: organize and present his oeuvre by the subjects he’s covered, which is the way people can most readily find him. He has to enable people to discover the brand “Yamashita” when they are looking for a famous place or person he has shot.
The business Mike has always been in: shooting assignments nobody, or almost nobody, else can do and putting together books and selling images that are stunning and, literally, rise above the crowd, will continue to diminish but, for a while at least, continue to pay. But building the new one, which is about Mike himself and not just the images, depends on his willingness to give away what he always used to sell.