What does Shutterstock data license mean?

Shutterstock data license

Shutterstock has introduced a new way of earning income from your photos: data license. But what does data licensing mean? Is data licensing really an extra way to earn more passive income? In this article I will explain what will happen if you allow your photos to be used with a data license. You will learn all you need to know in order to make a choice whether to opt in or out of earning data license commissions.

What is a data license?

A data license is a license that allows the data of your image to be used for machine learning. It differs from an image license in that the image is not directly used for publication. The image and it’s meta data are used by companies to teach their Artificial Intelligence (AI) software. This means that when the AI software generates a new image, it can use information they learned from your image. So your image itself is not directly used, but elements of it can come back in a newly generated AI image.

Shutterstock now offers Data deals to these AI software companies. This means Shutterstock delivers packages of data to these companies to train their AI software. One of the companies Shutterstock works with is OpenAI, which is well know for creating the ChatGPT and Dall-E software. Every time one of your images is used in one of these data sets, you will receive a compensation from the Shutterstock contributor fund.

What is machine learning?

Machine learning is the training of AI systems. In relation to images, this can mean that AI software needs to know how to recognize or create certain elements of an image. Let’s use a bicycle as an example. On the one hand there is software that needs to recognize what a bicycle is. For example software that is used in autonomous vehicles. By showing this software many photos of different bicycles from all angles, the software will learn what a bicycle looks like. Then in traffic it will be able to distinguish a bicycle from a motorcycle and a pedestrian.

Then there is also software that generates images using AI. This is the software most stock contributors are skeptical of. Imagine a user asking an AI image generator to generate an image of a person riding a bicycle. The software then first needs to know what a bicycle looks like, to be able to generate a realistic picture. It can be trained again by inserting lots of different photos of bicycles.

Eligible for data licensing

When your images have been reviewed by Shutterstock, they can now be awarded the status Eligible for data licensing. This means your image is not accepted into the regular collection of shutterstock, but can be used to train AI software. Your image will not appear in your regular portfolio, so regular buyers can not find or license it. However it can still earn some money from the contributor fund, if it is used in a data set for machine learning. This status basically means your photo was rejected for the normal collection, but was found to be useful for training AI software.

Is data licensing good or bad?

Above all, this is something you have to decide for yourself. On the one hand, income is income. If you choose to opt out of data licensing, you will consequently earn nothing for that particular photo on Shutterstock. On the other hand, if you do choose to accept data licensing, you may earn some money from the contributor fund. Then again, you can argue that you are helping the competition if you allow your images to be used for machine learning. In recent times AI generated images are rapidly taking the place of stock images. Buyers that previously used stock photos for their publications, start using AI images more and more. So by helping the AI software getting better, you are essentially lowering your potential future income from stock photography.

How to opt out of data licensing

If you don’t want Shutterstock to use your images for the training of AI software, you can also opt out. Then your photos that are in your portfolio, or those that are eligible for data licensing, will not be added to the data deals and you will not earn anything from the contributor fund. In order to opt out of data licensing on Shutterstock, you need to go to the contributor website on a web browser. In the bottom left corner select the Account icon and then choose Account settings. Scroll down to the section that says Licensing options and switch off Data licensing. Then save your settings and your images will no be used for the training of AI software.

If you want to allow data licensing in a later stage, you can just turn it on again in the same way.


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I have one important question. If I opt in, are only those photos rejected for regular portfolio and accepted only for data licensing used for AI training or do I agree to use also all my regular portfolio for AI training?