iStockphoto – DO NOT WANT

Ah, iStockphoto. They bother me. They really do. Their “credits” system – a throwback to carnival days – is just plain hostile toward consumers and only benefits them. Why do consumers support businesses that use these systems?

I’ve used iStockphoto on occasion over the last few years for vector artwork for Bartas Technologies’ products and web site. I’ve been increasingly annoyed by the inconvenience of actually buying stuff from them. Recently, however, I was told my credits would expire if I didn’t use them soon. This lead me to really think about what I was doing by giving my money to this company.

Here is my specific gripe: You must purchase credits in blocks (like 10, 100, etc.). Artwork is priced such that it’s never evenly-numbered, always leaving unused credits when you make one-off purchases. Credits inexplicably “expire” after one year if you do not use them.

As I mentioned, this type of system is not new. In fact it’s very old and not at all tied to technology. It’s been used in carnivals for a long time and likely elsewhere. You give them real money and they give you a certain usually-even number of credits (maybe in the form of tickets). Once inside, you find nothing costs an even number of tickets. You could purchase more to make up the difference but you always find yourself leaving with unused (and unusable) tickets. This serves several purposes: It obfuscates the real cost of rides, games, food, and more, making it difficult to judge your spending and making you more inclined to hand over this worthless little piece of paper than you would be with actual cash. It ensures you’ll have to buy large quantities of credits in order to fully use them all (assuming the pricing structure isn’t rigged so this is never possible, which it often is).

This kind of system only benefits the business. It has zero benefit for the customer and in fact is customer-hostile. It’s a barrier to quick and easy purchase, it restricts choice, purposely makes it difficult to judge spending, and is structured toward pressuring you into buying more to avoid losing money you’d already given them.

It’s all so disgusting.

There have been plenty of times when I would have purchased something from iStockphoto if I weren’t forced to deal with this credits-based system. Now, since I have no need of any artwork between now and the time they said my credits will expire (I currently have exactly 1 less credit than the usual price of vector artwork of sufficient quality), it looks like I’ll lose that money.


There’s no valid technical reason why these credits should expire. There’s no business case for expiration either. The only party this serves is iStockphoto, at the expense of its customers. When you add that to the fact that the copyright holders only get a few cents per purchase, I’m so thoroughly disgusted by this company, I’m no longer willing to give them my hard-earned money. To call it a rip-off is perhaps unfair – if you don’t agree to the terms, don’t buy their credits – but I think consumers need to send this message to businesses like iStockphoto by going with competitors that don’t resort to this customer-hostile tactic.

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