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AI-Generated Images or Stock Photography? Here's How Entrepreneurs Can Navigate the Dynamic Photography Industry Entrepreneurs eyeing long-term financial gains find stock photography, a $4 billion market in 2023, enticing. Yet, AI's rise prompts a shift from cameras to algorithms.

By Serban Enache Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Key Takeaways

  • AI-generated content is not without its legal difficulties, particularly concerning copyright ownership, the risk of infringing on intellectual property rights and the necessity for consent from people or models
  • AI-generated content is in demand, but quality, authenticity and legal security influence customers to favor stock photography.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As an entrepreneur, you are familiar with the quest to build something that works financially, preferably in the long term. Stock photography, a market evaluated at $4 billion in 2023, has been a reliable passive income source for years. But with AI-generated content emerging, should you trade off your camera for a photoshop-like algorithm?

The established powerhouse of stock photography

Stock photography is a proven way to monetize your artistic vision. Platforms connect you to a vast marketplace of millions of potential buyers. You upload your work once and earn from it repeatedly and indefinitely. One image alone can earn you hundreds or thousands of dollars from royalty-free sales.

Moreover, stock photo platforms provide licensing agreements, indemnification and a clear legal framework for your business, reducing subsequent legal risks for all parties involved.

Related: How Modern Entrepreneurs Can Capitalize on Image and Video Searches

The legal and ethical considerations of AI

AI-generated content is the new kid on the block, bringing opportunities and challenges. Many companies have started selling generative AI while needing to learn more about stock photography requirements.

As such, this new exciting frontier is not without its legal difficulties, particularly concerning copyright ownership, the risk of infringing on intellectual property rights and the necessity for consent from people or models — issues that traditionally created content doesn't raise.

AI tools have been trained and are still mostly training on existing images, raising questions about authors' permissions. Without clear transparency and compensation mechanisms, most artists have not and still do not green-light their work for AI training or usage, on the contrary. So, how do you know how much or to what extent your AI-prompted image is derivative of another artist's intellectual property? And what, if any, are the liabilities for you? Can you safely and legally generate images of people? Any unauthorized commercial and even editorial use of an individual's likeness could have significant legal consequences for you and your clients.

Furthermore, who does the copyright belong to: the AI developers, you, or someone else? A recent ruling says you can't copyright AI work, so creators using such tools are mere… tools. When using AI to generate content, you may find yourself in a less clear legal position: image prompter versus indisputable copyright owner.

Real vs. Generated

For image entrepreneurs, success lies in creating distinctive visuals. Established industry names have signature styles perfected over the years. The AI mainly replicates techniques and styles in a hyper-realistic way, with results that dilute artistic trademark, perhaps to exhaustion, eventually failing to produce authentic, diverse imagery. The critical question arises: what becomes of creativity when the marketplace is flooded with too-similar-looking images due to the widespread use of AI? Market saturation affects sales, so taking a unique approach to your work becomes a matter of artistic integrity and a necessity for your commercial success.

AI could work for abstract concepts for image shoppers, but conveying authenticity through AI remains difficult. Audiences crave authenticity, and they need relatable visuals. Genuine authenticity comes from the nuanced perspectives of individuals who can understand and capture the broader context. Audiences can not only spot the real versus the fabricated but relying on AI-generated images can backfire heavily on brands or services.

Many customers buy visuals with high SEO results in mind. Original photos with reliable metadata are a big win, and using natural-looking photos will boost user engagement. Because AI-generated content may lead to content removal, original stock photos save your clients from serious SEO headaches.

AI-generated visuals often create ethical dilemmas about deception, misrepresentation and fake news in fields like journalism or historical documentation. Enhancing or modifying reality undermines credibility and authority and can harm your service.

Related: I Tried 3 AI Headshot Generators, 1 Might Work for LinkedIn

Why you should work with ethical partners in visual storytelling

Whether you are buying or selling imagery, stock photo platforms remain the most secure and reliable venue for high-quality and ethically sourced content. Stock photography is multifaceted, and AI has just started participating in this landscape.

Explore different platforms, review their content acceptance policies and AI content approaches, and find the one that aligns with your goals and audience. Platforms usually prioritize ethical and legal content, ensure all uploaded images are original and copyright-protected, and review every photo before publication. You can be confident that you are licensing high-quality and ethically sound content.

Moreover, these generative AI platforms are at the forefront of ethical discussions regarding content creation, especially in compensating copyright holders. By incorporating such content under clear ethical guidelines, they set a precedent for using AI and AI-generated content. Creators might be limited to using AI tools that provide full rights or be required to label AI visuals distinctively.

Related: Deepfakes Are Lurking in 2024. Here's How to Navigate the Ever-growing AI Threat Landscape

The bigger picture

AI technology is about progress, and stock photography is ready to accept it, provided it benefits both creative communities and image shoppers. The industry's common understanding is that AI is a helping tool meant to enhance and enrich users' needs, whether in creating artwork or enhancing specific designs. AI is great for filling any voids left by photographed imagery, such as futuristic concepts, utopian landscapes, or envisioning hypothetical situations.

However, the lack of an official regulatory system means image entrepreneurs, platforms and content users are still sailing uncharted waters. Before using AI for picture-perfect results, consider their benefits or drawbacks. Like content creation, content generation must be conducted responsibly, with informed judgment, and supported by legal foundations.

Related: What's Stopping You From Using Generative AI in Your Business?

Turn your passion into a thriving portfolio

So, is stock photography still relevant for entrepreneurial creators? Absolutely! AI-generated content is in demand, but quality, authenticity and legal security influence customers to favor stock photography. As technology evolves and legislation eventually introduces regulations, the choice might be up to personal preference, but uniqueness will remain a key differentiator.

Hang on to that camera, leverage platforms like Dreamstime, stay informed, and, most importantly, let your unique storytelling style shine through your lens. That's how you'll build a successful image business that thrives over the years and withstands technological advancement.

Serban Enache

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Dreamstime.com

Bucharest-based Serban Enache is the CEO and co-owner of Dreamstime.com, one of the largest stock photo communities in the world. He previoiusly co-founded Archiweb.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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