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March 5, 2014, 9:37 p.m.

Getty Images blows the web’s mind by setting 35 million photos free (with conditions, of course)

With lots of people on the web are using its images without credit or payment, Getty is betting that allowing broader free use can help the bottom line more than it harms it. But watch out: Ads may be on the way.

Hey, look, it’s some boiled crawfish:

And the great Creole fiddler Cedric Watson:

And a stock photo of a professor in a classroom:

And Walter Lippmann lecturing in 1952:

Those photos are all from the esteemed Getty Images — a place we at Nieman Lab and thousands of other publishers have paid good American money for the use of their photos.

And yet I’m not blowing through Harvard’s budget by putting those four photos up there. I’m legally and ethically publishing them all here because Getty has, remarkably, decided to allow 35 million of its images to be used for free for noncommercial purposes. The British Journal of Photography has the story — it’s an attempt to deal with widespread unauthorized posting:

“We’re really starting to see the extent of online infringement,” says Craig Peters, senior vice president of business development, content and marketing at Getty Images. “In essence, everybody today is a publisher thanks to social media and self-publishing platforms. And it’s incredibly easy to find content online and simply right-click to utilise it.”

In the past few years, Getty Images found that its content was “incredibly used” in this manner online, says Peters. “And it’s not used with a watermark; instead it’s typically found on one of our valid licensing customers’ websites or through an image search. What we’re finding is that the vast majority of infringement in this space happen with self publishers who typically don’t know anything about copyright and licensing, and who simply don’t have any budget to support their content needs.”

To solve this problem, Getty Images has chosen an unconventional strategy. “We’re launching the ability to embed our images freely for non-commercial use online,” Peters explains. In essence, anyone will be able to visit Getty Images’ library of content, select an image and copy an embed HTML code to use that image on their own websites. Getty Images will serve the image in a embedded player – very much like YouTube currently does with its videos — which will include the full copyright information and a link back to the image’s dedicated licensing page on the Getty Images website.

BJP argues that the move “has single-handedly redefined the entire stock photography market,” and while I think that’s a slight overstatement, it’s nonetheless quite significant. Go here and start searching (look for the </> symbol to see which photos are embeddable) to see what you can find.

A few thoughts on this big move:

The collection is huge, but it has big holes.

Not every image you’ll find on Getty can be embedded, and from my initial searches, the share of editorial/news images available seems much smaller than the share of traditional stock photos. Go search for “Obama” and you’ll find a gazillion photos, but I didn’t find too many that could be embedded, like this one:

If you need a purely illustrative photo — something to communicate the idea of “hotel room” or “pulled pork sandwich” or whatever — it seems you’re more likely to find something. But if you’re looking for photos from this morning in Crimea, you’re likely to have a harder time. For the online news organizations that already have licensing agreements with Getty, this new embeddability (?) isn’t likely to change the need for them.

(Sports photos seemed more frequently embeddable than straight news — again, just from some initial poking around. Here are University of Louisiana point guard Elfrid Payton — you’ll see him in a couple years at the next level! — and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.)

There’s a Trojan horse in the legal language.

Getty’s not doing this out of the good of its heart. It recognizes that images on the Internet are treated as de facto public domain by many people on social networks, blogs, and the scummier parts of the content web. It knows it’s highly unlikely to ever get significant money out of any of those people. Even you and I, upstanding Internet citizens, are unlikely to license a photo to tweet it to our followers.

So if it can (a) get some people to use an embed instead of stealing while (b) making the experience just clunky enough that paying customers won’t want to use it, Getty could eke out a net win. (More on that second point below.)

What does Getty get from the embed? Better branding, for one — the Getty name all over the web. Better sharing, for another — if you click the Twitter or Tumblr buttons under the photos, the link goes to Getty, not to the publisher’s site. But there are two other things Getty gets, according to the terms:

Getty Images (or third parties acting on its behalf) may collect data related to use of the Embedded Viewer and embedded Getty Images Content, and reserves the right to place advertisements in the Embedded Viewer or otherwise monetize its use without any compensation to you.

Aha! The data collected could have internal use (measuring what kinds of images are popular enough to invest in more stock photos, for instance). But they could also help with those ads. Imagine a day, five years from now, with Getty photo embeds all over the web, when they flip the switch — ads everywhere. Maybe there’s a photo equivalent of a preroll video ad and you now have to click to view the underlying image. Or a small banner on the bottom 90px of the photo.

And imagine your website has used a lot of Getty embeds over the years — enough that Getty can actually sell ads specifically targeting your website, using all that data it’s gathered. Or imagine there are enough Getty embeds that it could sell ads only on photos of Barack Obama, or only photos about Cajun music, or only photos about restaurants in Kansas City. You can start to see the potential there. Think of how many YouTube videos were embedded on other websites before Google ever started putting ads on them.

To get to that potential, Getty needs to have its photos everywhere. If it’s already accepted that it won’t make money with these small bloggers and publishers via licensing, why not use them as a Trojan horse? Who knows if it would ever come to that, but it’s a possibility specifically outlined in the terms of service.

Getty’s definition of “noncommercial” is bold.

In order to get to that kind of scale, Getty allows “noncommercial” use. But the Internet has never been able to decide what “noncommercial” really means. If you’re selling a photo for profit, sure, that’s commercial. If you’re using it in an ad for your product, sure, that’s commercial. But what if you’re using it on a website that has ads — is that enough? Or how about if you’re a freelancer and you’re using it on a site meant to promote your career — is that commercial?

Longtime readers may remember that, in 2011, Wired released a set of its photos under a Creative Commons license. Their definition of noncommercial allowed “editorial use by bloggers or any other publisher,” including those that had ads on them.

As a publisher (even one without ads!), I like that broader definition — but it’s not the one that most Creative Commons users prefer. (Much, much more about that here and here.) What “noncommercial” means is something Creative Commons has never really been willing to take a clear stand on. (Imagine some extremely hypothetical future day when we put ads on Nieman Lab. Do all the CC photos here become a rights violation or not?)

In any event, Getty is clear that its definition of noncommercial is closer to Wired’s than to the typical Creative Commons user’s. Here’s how it puts it in the terms of service:

You may only use embedded Getty Images Content for editorial purposes (meaning relating to events that are newsworthy or of public interest). Embedded Getty Images Content may not be used: (a) for any commercial purpose (for example, in advertising, promotions or merchandising) or to suggest endorsement or sponsorship; (b) in violation of any stated restriction; (c) in a defamatory, pornographic or otherwise unlawful manner; or (d) outside of the context of the Embedded Viewer.

As Getty told BJP (emphasis mine):

Blogs that draw revenues from Google Ads will still be able to use the Getty Images embed player at no cost. “We would not consider this commercial use,” says Peters. “The fact today that a website is generating revenue would not limit the use of the embed. What would limit that use is if they used our imagery to promote a service, a product or their business. They would need to get a license.” A spokeswoman for Getty Images confirms to BJP that editorial websites, from The New York Times to Buzzfeed, will also be able to use the embed feature as long as images are used in an editorial context.

The embed is kinda crummy.

There are at least three significant problems with it from a publisher’s point of view:

— The embed, by default, has no way to resize to different dimensions. (Unlike, say, the YouTube embed, which can be quickly resized to whatever size of content well you’d like.) You can change it manually if you’d like by fiddling with the width and height of the embed’s iframe, but that (a) takes math to derive the height from the desired width and (b) isn’t even simple math, because the credit area underneath the photo means that the height/width ratio of the photo isn’t the same as the ratio of the embed. You basically have to change the width and then manually eyeball the height until it looks right. I know, #firstworldpublisherproblems — but it makes the process less friendly.

— The embed is not, by default, perfectly responsive. So if your site is meant to adjust responsively from phones up to desktops, your embedded Getty image won’t always adjust with it. There are probably workarounds, as there are for Instagram’s similarly unresponsive image embeds or YouTube’s, but again, it’s a pain.

— Being restricted to an embed means that the photo can’t travel with the post. For instance, I’d love to use one of the lovely Getty photos in this story as what WordPress calls its “featured image” — meaning the photo that will show up when this story is on our homepage or in a search result or on my author archive page. But I can’t do that with a remote embed — I can only do that with an image that lives on the Nieman Lab server.

For Joe Blogger, none of those are likely a deal killer. (It’s even less of a deal for his neighbor, Joe Spam Blogger.) But those guys are probably comfortable just stealing the image directly anyway. I think these technical issues are enough of a roadblock to keep Getty embeds out of nearly any major publisher’s regular workflows.

Also, a technical note: The way the embeds are set up, it’s trivial to resize the iframe to eliminate the Getty Images credit and sharing tools at the bottom. For instance, here’s that same photo of Cedric, only this time resized to cover the credit:

Looks a lot like I paid for that photo now, doesn’t it? (I’m no lawyer, but I don’t even see how this violates the terms of service around embeds.) (Update, 7:50 p.m., March 6: Interesting! Getty appears to have changed how its embed works to combat people hiding the credit and sharing tools. Now Cedric doesn’t take up the full width of the iframe if the height is too short and the credit is force-displayed.)

I’m not sure this is a “redefinition” of the stock photo market.

There’s no doubt that this will further increase negative pricing pressure on the stock photo market. But that negative pricing pressure has been around for years. Ever since 2000, when iStockphoto burst onto the scene and radically undercut the existing competition, which was charging many multiples of iStock’s price.

In 2006, iStockphoto, the great undercutter of pro photography business models, was bought by…

Getty.

(In other words, these guys understand disruption in the photo business.)

This move requires uptake, but the right kind of uptake. Ideally, it would generate new value among the web scofflaws while not harming Getty’s business with pro publishers. I’m not sure these embeds hit that balance. The workflows are too ungainly for the people who currently have contracts with Getty, true, but they’re also not quite easy enough to be a good substitute for people who don’t mind stealing. My wager is that, as transformational as this announcement might seem to be, Getty’s embeds won’t be pockmarking the web.

But no matter how it turns out, give Getty a lot of credit for being willing to take a highly unorthodox stance. It’s an effort very much worth watching.

POSTED     March 5, 2014, 9:37 p.m.
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