Getty Images Sets 35 Million Images Free

Getty Images has changed the name of the game for those who use images to enhance their online content. Maybe. With last week’s announcement that they’ve dropped the watermark from the bulk of their collection making millions of images available for free for all! While there was much rejoicing in the streets at the very thought of “free” Getty images, as usual, there’s more to this issue than images that were once for sale being offered up for free.

The Specifics

Tired of chasing people across the Internet and sending what must be hundreds of thousands of cease and desist letters, Getty is going in a different direction. Their new strategy might well be called, “If you can’t beat ‘em, figure out a way to join ‘em …. and benefit in the process.” I’ve got no problem with that – that’s just good business sense. The specifics: Getty Images intends to make some 35 million images in their collection free to embed for non-commercial use (note the words embed and non-commercial – I’ll be coming back to them in a minute). What would compel Getty to make this change? Probably the fact that policing the Web for images used without permission is exhausting, expensive and relatively fruitless. And, according to Craig Peters, SVP of business development, content and marketing, “There are two ways to look at the world, people sharing content without a license is an issue—or it’s an opportunity.”

Everybody’s a Publisher; Every Business a Media Company

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this, often bloggers yourselves and/or charged with content marketing for your business, that every one, everywhere is focused on creating content. And while many of us are familiar with the rules associated with online images, there are millions (bloggers, writers, small to medium-sized business owners, etc.) who are not. And those millions are routinely grabbing images found on the Web, using them in their content, on their websites and in social media channels and not thinking a thing about the legalities (or lack thereof) associated with that usage.

Peters acknowledges that and says “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 utilize it. 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 happens 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.” And they sure don’t have any budget when Getty tries to sue them for inappropriate use of their images.

Why “Free” Isn’t Really Free

As mentioned earlier, the key words to take note of in Getty’s announcement are “embed” and “non-commercial.” With many free photo-sharing sites, we’ve become accustomed to downloading an image and adding an attribution of our own at the end of the post. That won’t be an option with embeddable Getty Images and I believe this is intended as a solution to a problem that ultimately leads to revenue for Getty. Which is what every business wants, no?

Getty is using an open-embed program that will let users use a non-watermarked image in exchange for a footer at the bottom of the picture that will be added automatically and link back to the licensing page. Note that these images will be in an iframe and “live” on a server owned by Getty and controlled by Getty. Each image will contain information about the photographer and how to license the work for commercial use, which for all intents and purposes is irrelevant. Most importantly, these embedded images will send information about the website’s traffic back to Getty. 

You’re probably pretty familiar with iframes already — in fact, much of the video content you see and consume online lives in an iframe. In fact, YouTube content is most often served up on websites and blogs by way of an iframe. As mentioned above, an iframe is a piece of code that “lives” on another site, but appears on your site. So the site where that iframe “lives” has complete and total control over it — how it appears, what it says, and how they track your data. Oh, and I should also mention that Javascript can be embedded within that iframe, which can track the very same things that Google Analytics (or other tools) tracks. Why does that matter so much? I can only speak to my own preferences, but the way I think about it is simple: Google owns YouTube and of course that data is tracked. I’m pretty cool with that. Conversely, I’m not sure how okay I am with the idea of Getty, (or third parties acting on its behalf) having any access, of any nature, to data from my site – and certainly not from my clients’ sites.

Remember that adage that if it’s free, you’re the product? It absolutely applies here. Everyone today is trying to figure out how to get into the data business, and this move on Getty’s part is a move in that direction – it gets them data. They’ve already got a deal in place with Pinterest that gives them revenue in exchange for data, so this is yet another step along that path. Additionally, I’m sure we’ll be seeing advertising in those embedded images in no time – imagine how that might play out in content on your blog.

What Defines “Noncommercial”?

This is where I think it gets tricky and where people have differing opinions. I believe that the risk very much outweighs the benefit of using this vast library of “free” images. Getty has clarified that “noncommercial” means using an image to promote a service or product for a business. Well, that’s easily misconstrued – or certainly misunderstood – by both businesses and bloggers. To my way of thinking, if you have a corporate blog (for a company large or small) and are writing content for the blog and sourcing images to use in that content, that’s a commercial use. If you’re using inbound marketing tactics to drive traffic to your blog or website and using images as part of your efforts to do that, that’s a commercial use. If you’re using images to drive traffic to social media platforms where you can sell stuff to people, that’s commercial use. And even if you’re not explicitly promoting the company or a specific product or service in that particular moment and with that particular piece of content where the image is used (as you might do with a brochure or in a print ad or the like), content marketing is, by its very nature, marketing. What do you think? Is that commercial?

If you’re a blogger who works with brands or agencies and you market and sell your services – whether as an influencer, brand advocate, social media community management, writer, etc., this could definitely impact you. If you’re writing content that promotes your personal brand – content that is inherently designed to promote brand awareness, drive traffic to your website/blog and get you more clients and business – well, that’s commercial. Even if the post in which you use one of these wonderful “free” images isn’t specifically promoting a product or service, it is, overall, being used in such a way that it promotes you and your business.

If you’re in the content marketing business and writing content for corporate blogs for hire and also charged with providing images for that content, that’s commercial. And if you do that, and use free Getty Images for that content and your clients don’t know or understand the ramifications – well, you deserve the sh*tstorm that might well come your way as a result. I probably don’t need to go on – I’m pretty sure you get my point. You probably also are picking up what I’m putting down — that there’s absolutely, positively no gray area on this issue in my mind.

Want to use an image for commercial purposes? Buy it. Getty and its team of attorneys have lots of practice enforcing the misuse of images and make it clear that they’ll enforce the terms of the license if you use an embedded image. One note for bloggers that’s probably important — drawing revenue from Google Ads isn’t considered to be commercial use by the company. Getty also confirms that editorial websites will be able to use the embed feature as long as the images are used “in context.” Clear as can be, isn’t it?

The Pros

Sourcing and finding just the right image for use in content development or social media can be an arduous task. In fact, finding the perfect image often takes me as long as writing the doggone post! This move by Getty obviously could make that process easier. On the plus side of the equation:

  • More images to choose from.
  • Simple to use and to add attribution.
  • Free. Sort of.

The Cons

If you’ve gotten this far, you no doubt know I think there are infinitely more negatives than positives. In short, they are:

  • You may only use embedded Getty images for editorial purposes (meaning relating to events that are newsworthy or of public interest). This “loose” definition is, well, loose. And ambiguous.
  • Getty reserves the right to remove Getty Images Content from the Embedded Viewer whenever they deem it appropriate, potentially leaving gaping “holes” in your content.
  • The data. Use of these embedded images is going to open a window from your site to Getty’s servers and provide them with data that you may or may not want them to have. From their TOS: “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.”
  • The ads. It only makes sense that Getty will soon figure out a way to include advertisements in the embedded images. Think about how that could impact your brand, your business and/or your content since, of course, you wouldn’t have any control over what ads would be served up.

On the last two points, although those features aren’t part of the initial rollout Peters said, “We’ve certainly thought about it, whether it’s data or it’s advertising,” and went on to say “We reserve the right to monetize that footprint.” And I’m betting they’ll get right on that.

I’ve spent a ton of time reading about this and in many instances, including in the world of SEO, people are excited about this, often referring to it the “greatest thing ever for bloggers.” Call me a skeptic, but I disagree. Free is never really free. And there are exponentially more risks and a much greater downside associated with this move than any benefit. For me and my team, we’ll continue sourcing images (and providing attribution) using trusted sources and/or buying images for use. I’m not ready to give Getty access to my data and/or have my blog or my clients’ blogs serve as places where ads could eventually be served up without any control over it. What about you?

Photo Credit: kodel via Compfight cc