iStockPhoto.com is a great website. It allows photographers, graphic designers, and other creative types to upload photos and artwork which can then be purchased as “stock” photography or artwork. This is great for aspiring photographers, who learn how to take photos that people want to buy. This is great for print and web designers who use those photos in their trade, because they get a large selection to choose from, and the photos are a lot cheaper than what was previously available ($1 vs. $400, in some cases).
But there is a dark side. An ugly, corrupt, sinful side to iStockPhoto.com, and it has to do with the way you purchase images. You might expect that to purchase images from iStockPhoto you would merely choose the photos you want and then check out and pay for them as you do on just about any other ecommerce site. But iStockPhoto gives you an incentive to buy “credits” for future use by discounting credits depending on how many you buy. Whereas a photo that requires 1 credit would cost you $1 dollar, what if you are buying 4-5 photos every day for use in web design projects? You can buy 50, 100, or even 2,000 credits at a time and get a hefty discount, therefore saving money over what you would pay if you only paid for the images at the time you chose them.
There’s just one problem–the credits expire after a year. Let’s say you buy 120 credits for $165, because you then get a 9% discount. That’s all great, until you login to your account, which had 40 credits left in it, and you find out there are none. Where did the credits go? Upon contacting customer support, they’ll tell you the credits expired, and they’ll generally reinstate the credits for you and extend them for a few more months if you ask nicely. But why do they expire in the first place? Are the bits and bytes representing those credits getting stale on the servers and causing the other bits to get irritated? Are those bits and bytes taking up valuable storage space?
“But wait,” you say “Don’t they send you an email or something to tell you the credits are expiring? Don’t they give you a chance to do something about it before they expire?” Yes, that would be nice, but no, they don’t do that. They used to, but they don’t any more. The credits just expire.
“Well, they certainly make it obvious when you are buying the credits that they are going to expire, don’t they?” you might query, but no, they don’t. I suspect 99.9999% of the customers who haven’t experienced this have no idea their credits are automatically set to expire, without notice.
Now why in the world would iStockPhoto do this? Don’t they understand that a 9% discount means nothing when you end up losing 30% of the credits you purchased? I think they do understand this, but the bottom line is this–they make a lot of money off of expired credits, and not enough people complain to make it worth their while to change the policy. In other words, it’s a scam. And a brilliant one, I might add. I can’t imagine any other business getting away with it. Imagine if you bought a new car and paid for it in cash, and four years into driving it you went to drive home from work and your car was gone. You contact the police, but they don’t know anything. A few days later you drive by the dealer where you bought the car and you see your car sitting in the lot. So in confusion and awkward rage you rush inside and say “What the heck is my car doing back in your lot?!” and the dealer says “Oh, your ownership expired. It’s in the agreement. Didn’t you read the part of the agreement where it says after four years your ownership of the car expires and we get it back?”
I mean, that’d be quite the racket, wouldn’t it? Great business model, if you can keep the government from passing laws against it. Apparently iStockPhoto has bribed the right people, or at least kept under their radar.