Getty's Free Image Program: New Revenue Model, or a Surrender to Copyright Infringement?

by David Walker

Getty Images lit up the Twittersphere today with an announcement that it was making its archive available free of charge for bloggers and other non-commercial users. Some of the big questions are: What is Getty gaining by making images free to the public? How does Getty's decision affect not only its own contributors, but all photographers? And are there any hidden costs to non-commercial users who take advantage of Getty's free images?

Getty said in its announcement, which it made last evening after a midnight embargo on the news was violated, that it was releasing a new embed tool to make it easy for non-commercial users to share its images on websites, blogs and social media channels.

Getty CEO Jonathan Klein says in the announcement that the "easy, legal sharing…benefits our content contributors and partners."

One benefit to the company and its partners is that by automatically crediting the images and linking them back to Getty's website, the embed tool makes it easy to find and license the images for commercial use.

At the same time, the embed tool will also makes it easier for Getty to track non-commercial uses of its images, and the users who take advantage of the company's offer of free images. Under the terms of use, Getty reserves the right to collect data from embed tool users, and push ads through the embed viewer without compensation to users. (The terms of use prohibit commercial uses, which are defined by example, and include advertising, promotions, merchandising, endorsements, and sponsorships.)

By making images free to non-commercial users, Getty also sidesteps the difficulty and costs of pursuing copyright violations by individuals who use images in blogs and social media without permission. Such violations are rampant, and the legal costs of pursuing them usually outweigh the returns. Moreover, companies are reluctant to sue potential customers.

But Getty's decision to open up its archive to non-commercial users for free could undermine years of  effort by photographers and their trade groups to educate the public about copyright and the legal imperative to seek permission from copyright owners to use images in all cases.

The decision also has implications for the perceived value of images. Stock photo prices fell precipitously for years, eventually to prices as low as a dollar, forcing many photographers out of the stock photo business. Now, billions of images are shot and uploaded annually by everyone including amateurs, further devaluing images.

Critics may accuse the agency of driving down the value of images even more with its embed tool, but the company may only be reacting to the facts on the ground: Images are available for free everywhere, and Getty's best opportunity to make money is to harness non-commercial users to drive sales of commercial licenses.

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