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spires from Carfax

class photographs and market failures

Helen's school recently had class photos taken. We bought a copy of hers, paying £13.50 to the photography company, without thinking about it much. But there are, on consideration, two major problems with the way this worked. The first is a failure of inclusivity. The second is a market failure, where goods fail to end up in the hands of the people who value them most.

There are some families for whom £13.50 is not easy to find and who will have chosen not to buy a photograph as a result. This seems a bit sad, especially since one doesn't know how much the photo might have been valued in the long-term. (Note that the class teachers and teaching assistants are in the same situation: they may well want a photograph of the class they taught.) The situation here contrasts with the school's efforts to make excursions inclusive, by paying for them outright and then asking for "donations" to cover the costs (reasonably strongly, but making it clear that opting out is an option).

Turning to market failure... I would have liked a high quality digital copy of the photograph and would have been prepared to pay extra for that. But I can understand why that wasn't an option: a bit of extra income for the company there would be offset by fewer sales of prints, from parents sharing (legality notwithstanding) digital copies and printing their own.

This is part of a broader market failure, where the rights to the photographs end up in the wrong place. To the photography company these will, after a short while, have pretty much no value. Perhaps a few people will want to order new or replacement photos in years to come, but that's going to be a tiny revenue stream. To the school, however, and to the parents and children and teachers, access to the photographs and the freedom to reuse them would continue to be valuable, potentially for quite some time. Would it be nice to have a montage of all the school Reception classes going back twenty years? What happens when grandma moves into a nursing home and has to throw her old school photographs out because there's nowhere to store them, and no one has time to scan them (and the last copy of the high resolution original was destroyed sixty years earlier, when the photography company closed down)?

So what do I suggest? The school should tender for a photographer to come and take photographs of the fifteen classes, provide thirty-five prints of each, and give the school high resolution digital copies, along with full rights. The school would ask for payments from parents to cover the costs, waiving them for anyone with a reasonable plea as with excursions, and then give every family one photo, a digital copy, and reproduction rights. Parents could print any additional photos they wanted.

I don't know how much this would cost, but it would surely — even using wedding photography prices as a comparison — be considerably less than the £5,000 or so the parents are collectively paying, across the school, under the current system (assuming 80% of families purchase photos). Though of course in this approach, some of the cost may fall on the school.


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