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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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…


(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.

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  • David Pimborough

    Hum and where in all of this does the photographer get mentioned?

    Who produces the photos? Do they come out of thin air?

    How does the photographer pay for food and bills? Let me guess with good thoughts and a warm feeling inside.

    So do Getty think that they can make money out of this and not pay the photographer?

    Jeez Louise

  • David Price

    When the ads come, and they will, Getty will “share” this revenue with the photographer (most of whom only get 20-30% of the current sale price of a photo). It will be fractions of a penny. Literally. Think Spotify royalties for artists. It will make the content creators nothing (in real terms). Pennies at most. They do this already with a couple of other “content sharing ” deals. Getty are there to benefit Getty. Screw the creators. What a joke.

  • sunjazz

    Although I think it’s a step in the right direction from Getty (much better than their lawsuit approach recent years) I share your concerns about the photographers. Let’s hope they have a plan on monetizing on this model in the feature while letting the photographers in on the income (it is their property after all).

    I’m the CTO of which launched a streaming service for commercial use months ago. Our model is quite different, since we actually pay our photographers, and also let them opt out. It’s our belief that professional bloggers and website owners are willing to pay $9.90 per month for a superior product.

    If you are interested, read more about our streaming service here:

  • David Pimborough

    Thanks for the offer I’m with Yay Images already :)

    However if Getty go down this route how much time before all stock agencies follow them like lemmings and introduce terms which do not benefit the photographer and image producer.

  • CC

    How does the photographer pay for food and bills?
    Well a wild stab in the dark would be by perhaps selling the photo’s they take? Crazy idea I know but they could actually make money by selling the things themselves and not putting them on line anywhere so everyone has access to them.
    Then throwing their toys out of the pram when they find that someone has used them “without their permission”.. Put them online in the first place didn’t you? What did you expect?
    Don’t put them online anywhere. Make them exclusively available to nobody but you. If anyone wants them they pay for them.
    Mad idea I know. But hey

  • CC

    All this is doing is leaving the gate half open after the horse has bolted.

  • dylansmith

    Josh, you’re very right about the limitations of the embed; an image on a story doesn’t only live on that story page. But with this system, that’s the only place it can be.

    There’ll be no using it in the umpteen other ways an image from a story gets used automatically – in a rotator, a summary on a listing page, in previews on FB and Google (it’s in an iframe; it won’t get picked up there). So, it’s secondary art only.

  • David Pimborough

    I think you are confusing facebook/flickr image posting
    with stock sales.

    Getty is an agency for selling photographers work.

    They make money (a heap of it) out of that.

    It has jack shit to do with putting them on line.

    You don’t go to Amazon and demand they give you one of the items they sell for free now do you?

    “Just because it’s online”

    Same goes for music and video and other copyright material.

    Tell you what I’ll come round your house and eat your food and use your cable and not pay you.

    How’s that sound? Fair deal? Good what’s for dinner.

  • Robert Henson

    Great to see Getty follow the leader in embedding technology for photography on the web — IMGembed — and finally recognizing the direction that image monetization is taking.

  • Lorraine Swanson

    Well… we sign a contract with Getty to sell said photos, but then they change said contract and give them away under the “promotional use” clause. Who does that benefit? Oh ya, Getty.

  • Mark Kulaga

    It’s a step in a direction, and I think it’s the wrong one. What photographer would want to license their images to Getty now? Why not use tracking services and police the image library so the thieves cannot use the images without paying, and the photographers can get paid.

    No thanks!
    They are harvesting information without compensation, just like Facebook.
    Advertising without compensation? For images that cannot be used commercially? Everyone will still screen shot and steal the images more than ever.

    Thank you for promoting theft in light of your new initiative.

  • Vanessa Blaylock

    This is great news. And I should take a bit longer to applaud them. But in my own Getty search all the images I liked were not available and it was often the less interesting (to me) images that were available.

    Their TOS reserves the “Kindle 1984 clause” that Getty reserves the right to take content off your website at any time with no notice and no reason. Also that you will take their materials off your site instantly and without question or redress the moment they ask you. Also that they will run ads on those images and keep 100% of whatever they can make off your website.

    I don’t mean to be all negative, this actually is “progress.” But the real progress I seek isn’t a toenail in the door of proprietary culture, it’s the fuller blossoming of free culture. So reading Getty’s TOS, I’m even more convinced that doing a Creative Commons image search via Google or Flickr is a much better solution. You’ll find images you can actually use without the heavy hand of Getty, Getty’s TOS, Getty’s Engineers, and Getty’s lawyers breathing down your website’s neck, and you’ll also be participating in moving openness and accessibility forward in this information century.

  • DIane J. Schmidt

    Gee. Just nostalgically looking at some old checks for stock photo sales – there was a time when photographers could actually retire on that income. To all those who proclaim they’re for free culture, I ask: who will be left when they come for yours?

  • VSB

    Copyrights just took a nose dive and we photographers are screwed. Thanks for nothing, Getty.

  • VSB

    My feelings exactly!

  • VSB

    Bravo! Well-said!

  • CC

    No not at all. If you are putting photos online in the public domain which is effectively what you are doing if that’s the case, then you basically, like it or not, are giving every Tom, Dick and Harry access to them. Something which once done, you have little to no control over stopping.

    Whats to stop anyone taking them and producing or editing or selling them for themselves? Nothing. Only way to prevent that from happening is by not putting them online in the first place.

    You put them online anywhere you take this risk.

    Amazon is a poor example. What exactly am I going to get on there by demanding anything without ordering or paying for anything? Text and a picture of an item? Last time I looked don’t think I can actually download an actual cd or dvd or PS4 for example. A picture and text of what they do yes. The actual product? No.

    “Tell you what I’ll come round your house and eat your food and use your cable and not pay you.

    How’s that sound? Fair deal? Good what’s for dinner.”

    Not quite the same though really is it. By all means please do so. It’ll be a copy of my house and meal and cable you’ll be having then as I won’t be actually having anything stolen.

    I’ll give you another couple of analogy’s shall I?

    If I build a bridge and am paid for it. Should I then be expected to be paid for it again and again and again every single time anyone uses it? Sounds like money for old rope to me. Why do anymore work if I can just live off the laurels of something I did potentially years ago?

    Also the theft as it is being described as? I’ve never heard of a theft where by for example during a robbery the thief takes an exact copy of the persons wallet including all of its contents and then the victim and the thief still BOTH have the money and the wallet. That’s a hell of a crime when the victim does not actually lose a penny or anything.

    You don’t want Getty to do this? Then don’t have them sell photos on your behalf. Go elsewhere or as mentioned before represent yourself and give ONLY yourself access to them.

  • David Pimborough

    Oh we have a flamer in our midst not arguing with you goodbye

    And read up on copyright law while you are at it

  • CC

    Well why would you as your not coming up with anything relevant yourself.
    This would be the copyright law that’s about as up to date and effective as the doomsday book you mean?
    As said before Stick photos online your asking for trouble.
    Want money for them, sell them yourself.
    Then you can put food on the table.

  • David Price

    If people want to share their personally taken images with others on the web (via CC) great. No problem with that at all. Personal choice.

    What a lot of us photographers object to is one of our main agents suddenly, and without warning, giving away images that took us a lot of effort, skill, equipment, $$ and talent to make – for free.

    People look at great images and think of them in the same box as their iphone snaps on Instagram. They don’t see what went into making them. There’s a whole boatload of $$$ investment in training, post-production retouching, crew, models, catering, grip etc etc involved in some of these shoots. They are like mini film-sets with a budget to match. We are talking investment in $$$ that photographers need a return on to survive. Yet the final image that is produced is now available for free for anyone to put on their blog.

    Screw you Getty. See how many top-end creative images you get now from your producers. Why should we bother investing our $$ for you to give bloggers free content.

    Give it a few years and the only people making images for stock will be well-heeled weekend amateurs who do it for the vanity.

  • CC

    Also if I’m a troll or as you’d say a “flamer” surely I’d be replying to everything on here by everyone and disagreeing with all of it. And Have I? Nope.
    Ah but then having a difference of opinion with you clearly makes me both a flamer and a troll. You cant possibly be wrong or have someone with a different opinion on here…at all can you.

  • Daryl L. Hunter

    Getty enabling free-loaders and thieves hoping for table scraps for Getty photographer’s who happily settle for scraps. When I was with Getty before quitting they made regular but small sales for editorial usage.

    Yes this will get more eyes on a Getty photographers work, but it will devalue all images in the stock world across the board.

    Another fine example why I quit Getty Images!

  • CC

    Perhaps time then to break said contract and don’t trust any photos with said organisation again? Sell yourself? All money then goes to you and no middle man.

  • hapinessey

    Before those who are very excited about having your name and Getty having its name across the web try this simple exercise: Right click in any of the pictures above, then choose “Save image as”. Save it to your computer. Now check it out. No logo, no photographer name. No need to embed the picture, just upload it to your website. And Voilá, there goes the fantastic idea of Getty Images of embed adds in those spaces.

  • Lorraine Swanson

    Thanks for the advice oh wise one. I kept one of my worst photos active so I can still read forums etc. And yes, everyone needs to sell on their own these days. Take a look at open source photo agency

  • Jeff Hobbs

    I’ve added preliminary support for adding a responsive wrapper to Getty Images at — give it a shot.

  • Geof Kirby

    Symbiostock is only good for royalty free.

  • Geof Kirby

    Does anyone notice the similarity between the ethics of the bankers that brought on the last recession with their CDOs and sub-prime mortgages and Gettys latest cynical move. Oh wait, Getty are owned by a private equity company. Apart from pandering to the abundance of those who want stuff without paying for it, they have successfully commoditised pictures in the public’s eye. We will all be the poorer for this move and instead of nurturing and encouraging the photographic profession, they have done the exact opposite. Note please that nowhere have they produced a concrete plan to return any of whatever returns they can get to the photographers.

  • Conrad Lambert

    Until I read this article, I was sure that Getty has made a good deed. However, little did I know..they actually stand to win big time…Thus, I would honestly pay $9.90 for a service like and know that my private data is safe and that no one is advertising and getting paid behind my back.

  • Maica Rm

    The problem with Flickr is that there’s not any kind of effective control. You can end with an stolen image (lots of Joe Does stealing great images and uploading under their names at these sites out of vanity), or with a people’s image without model releases at all. Has happened many times. No, thanks.

  • gvanderleun

    “here’s that same photo of Cedric, only this time resized to cover the credit:”

    I see the credit in that image. Did they tweak the embed?

  • justinef

    Well said, indeed! My 28-yr-old daughter is into this “Free Culture” notion as well…Difference is, she knows better (and doesn’t actually go around touting the belief that everything on the web should be free…she just sorta internalized it somehow.)
    Trust you me, it was not my doing. I will say, however, that there is a line somewhere between the fine set of skills it takes to capture an image in best form; And having a natural talent for doing same.
    Lots of people really do possess these skill-sets/talents, and, nowadays, they too can “compete” w/ some of the best photographers out there b/c of equipment /technology disruptions….So -it’s tough for those more formally trained, I’m sure.

  • PDT Photography

    I have a slightly different analysis on this. Ultimately what Getty is going after is the data on users which is where the value lies today. By doing so, Carlyle increases the value of its asset for a future sell out of Getty

    More on this here:

  • DIane J. Schmidt

    I’m sorry but you are ignorant if you think that’s what this is about. And It’s not just photographers. It’s writers and book and newspaper publishers, too. Not to mention investigative journalism and photojournalism. So you can kiss goodbye most independent watchdog news.

  • Paul Thomas

    As a photographer, I need exclusive ownership of my work. After some extensive research I found out about this firm called Levy, Levy & Sosa in Miami. I decided to set up a consultation to meet with their attorney and I’m sure glad I did. They assisted me with applying for copyright registration, the process was so simple and they guided me along the way, explaining in ways that were easy to understand. I encourage you to contact them on 1-800-464-5554 or visit their website to secure your work!

  • Sue Owen

    Thank you for this post; i needed some clarity on this :) About calculating matching height and width to change the image size – Since designers don’t carry proportion wheels anymore (!) (actually I never did, I cheated by leaning over to the Mac behind me, drawing a rectangle the right size and reading the px measurements off that) Anyway: I’ve had good luck with simply deleting the height measurement. That’s assuming the width is more important for my use, which it usually is. I set the width to half my column or whatever I want, and the height is automatically adjusted. Just tried it on a Getty embed in WordPress and it worked fine.

  • Toni R. Aubin

    Thanks for the posts! Iwasn’t really determined on what photo stock agency should I go for. Thanks to your comments Getty is out of my mind already. I’ll choose with only $9.90 and will get rid of all these incoveniences!