Why Shutterstock execs decided to embrace DALL-E 2

A chief competitor, Getty Images, decided to ban AI-generated content outright.
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· 4 min read

Soon, the stock photos you come across on the web may have an entirely new image credit: AI.

Last week, Shutterstock announced it will lean into AI-generated imagery, partnering with OpenAI to integrate its DALL-E 2 image-generating tool into the Shutterstock platform. The news comes weeks after Getty Images decided to ban AI-generated content outright.

Shutterstock is one of the biggest names in stock photography, with a database of more than 424 million images and over 27 million video clips. As of September, the company reported  more than 600,000 paying subscribers, and its 2021 revenue exceeded $773 million. The company’s enterprise clientele ranges from Microsoft to Mastercard.

Shutterstock made its decision after more than a year of planning, according to its CPO Meghan Schoen, which started before DALL-E 2 hit the market and set off the ongoing boom in generative AI.

“There were obviously a lot of players out there who were investing in this technology, and it’s really important for us that we have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the space—and so we wanted to be an active participant and lead the way in some of those conversations,” she told us.

We chatted with Schoen and CEO Paul Hennessy about the integration, which should go live in the coming months, and their vision for AI-generated imagery on the platform.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When it comes to AI-generated art, Shutterstock is heading in the opposite direction as Getty. What makes you confident Shutterstock’s direction is the right one?

PH: Shutterstock is running a very consistent playbook…We’re quite certain that being contributor-centric and doing the right thing, being customer-centric and doing the right thing, and being tech-forward—that is, embracing this new technology as yet another ingredient in the creative mix—is the only answer. No matter what anyone’s doing, we’re running our playbook, and we think Shutterstock’s playbook has not only been tested over time, but…the feedback is that this is what our customers want. So we're going to continue to lean into this rather than pull away from it. It’s certainly nothing to be afraid of.

One thing Getty cited in its decision was a concern about potential copyright suits. How does Shutterstock think about that?

PH: We’ve architected it so we don’t ever have to worry about that. By not allowing any old generative content onto the platform, we’re actually protecting ourselves, we’re protecting our contributors, and we’re protecting our customers. So almost in the very design of our program is the answer to your question: We’re not worried about that. If we were just a free-for-all and let anything happen…you can imagine, right…and licensed anything that comes along…you would have all of those issues that would be of concern. With the approach we’re taking, we have none of those. And, let me add, we’re figuring it out. This is the first pitch of the first inning for us, and we’re going to continue to evolve to make sure that we stay on the right side, the ethical side, of this.

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Three years from now, how will Shutterstock’s platform have changed after the introduction of AI-generated art?

PH: I think it will look a lot like the past three years, in terms of [how] we’re constantly adding new things to the platform—so tha’’s new tools, that’s new ways that customers can engage [with] our content, and that’s new content. We’ve gone from only a stock-photo business; to music; to videos; to vectors and illustrations; to 3D models, templates, and tools. So I just continue to see this being the place to come, no matter what your creative needs are…That’s where I think this goes, and whether it’s a 1% mix of AI content or a 10% mix, I think, matters much less—just like it doesn’t matter now whether videos are X percent of our business or music is X percent…I assume that three years from now, we’ll be talking about the next thing that we haven’t thought about yet, whatever that is, after AI.

Is Shutterstock’s Contributor Fund—which plans to reimburse creators when the company sells their work for AI training—opt-in? And what do those reimbursements look like, exactly?

We want to make sure that contributors are always up to speed, in the loop, and a part of our process. So as a result of that, any of the data deals that we have done over the course of the last few years, contributors will be getting a percentage of those payouts. And that’s something that we’re really excited about. The long-term opportunity for them as well, in addition to just the upfront sale of that content, is that every time a piece of content is generated on Shutterstock, we will be paying royalties out to our contributors.

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