THE UNKNOWN PRICE OF FREEDOM: The real cost of Getty Images’ free-for-all evolution


By Annie Allison

Getty Images recently announced that it will stop charging (and in some cases suing) for non-commercial uses of its copyrighted imagery and will start allowing bloggers and social-media users embed stock pictures in a controllable way. Getty’s new strategy will allow anyone to select an image and copy a code to use that image on their own website. While proponents cheer Getty for adapting to the rapidly evolving online marketplace, others question what the costs of these free images may be on privacy.

Craig Peters, senior vice president of business development, content and marketing at Getty Images explained the reasoning for the company’s shift in approach: “It’s incredibly easy to find content online and simply right-click to utilize it. … The vast majority of infringement in this space happen[s] with self-publishers who typically don’t know anything about copyright.”

Under its new strategy, Getty Images will serve the image much like YouTube currently does with its videos and will include the full copyright information and a link back to the image’s dedicated licensing page. “There’s a value for Getty Images and the content owners,” says Peters. “We’ll have access to the information on who and how that image is being used and viewed, and we’ll… utilize that data to the benefit of our business.”

Getty says the move does not signal defeat [but] is an attempt to wrest some of the control back. Peters draws a clear comparison to the music industry, which was hit hard by piracy in the ’90s and took decades to respond. “Before there was iTunes, before there was Spotify, people were put in that situation where they were basically forced to do the wrong thing, sharing files,” Peters says. “Now, if an aspiring producer wants to leak a song to the web but keep control of it, they can drop it on Soundcloud.”

Getty knows that millions of people illegally use millions of photographs owned by Getty Images every day. Now, the embeddable images will carry Getty’s logo and the photographer’s name at the bottom and will also link back to where the image can be licensed, which is the bedrock of the company’s business.

Supporters call Getty’s move a step in the right direction. “[This] sounds positively forward looking for an organization with a history…of being anything but forward thinking,” said techdirt’s Mike Masnick. “The company should be applauded for actually recognizing reality, and trying to adapt accordingly.”

Following Getty’s announcement, Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do, tweeted that more media companies would be wise to follow Getty’s example.

Still, cautious observers raise concerns about what Getty will do with all the valuable big data it will generate from its embeds.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Parker Higgins writes that, while it’s encouraging to see Getty and other companies experimenting with different business models, this move rings alarm bells – especially from a privacy perspective.

“Given its scale and popularity, Getty Images embeds may appear on a significant number of different sites that a single user visits. That would allow Getty to correlate more information about a user’s browsing history than any single site could. That information, in turn, is subject to government requests, sales to data brokers, or even breaches or leaks.”

So far, Getty’s Craig Peters says the company has “certainly thought about” monetizing user data, but it has no specific plans.

Others opine that the biggest effect of Getty’s plan could be on the nature of the web itself. “Embeds from Twitter and YouTube are already a crucial part of the modern web, but they’ve also enabled a more advanced kind of link rot, as deleted tweets and videos leave holes in old blog posts, “ writes The Verge’s Russell Brandom. “If the new embeds take off, becoming a standard for low-rent WordPress blogs, they’ll extend that webby decay to the images themselves. On an embed-powered web, a change in contracts could leave millions of posts with no lead image.”

Still, Brandom points out, such long-term effects are years away, if they happen at all. In the meantime, Getty is focused on the more immediate problem of infringement. “The principle is to turn what’s infringing use with good intentions . . . into something that’s valid licensed use with some benefits going back to the photographer,” says Peters, “and that starts really with attribution and a link back.”


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