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Explainer: Why has Getty Images made 35 million images free to use?

The media site is allowing everyone to embed its images onto their sites for free, but what does it gain from such a move?

Image: Shutterstock

SEARCH FOR ANYTHING in Google images and you’re guaranteed that most of the images that will greet you are licensed, meaning they’re not free to use.

It’s a problem that photographers and photo companies face all too often. When a photo is posted and shared across the web, it can be difficult to stop, and unless the sites in question are significant in some way, finding all of them and invoicing them for using your work is an impossible task.

Since this is a major problem, Getty Images announced it will be allowing users to embed images onto their site for free. The move gives bloggers and site owners who don’t have a budget to work some leeway with images, but what are the reasons behind it?

So how does it work?

If you’ve ever embedded a tweet or Facebook post, then you’ll know exactly how Getty’s embedded images will work. Designed to be placed in the body of a story or post, they come with credits for the photographer and Getty Images as well as buttons for Tumblr and Twitter for sharing, although the image itself won’t appear on Twitter.

The majority of images available on its site can be embedded – with a number of notable exception – so the company is placing a lot of faith in this method. If it goes well, then the majority of images it has will be properly attributed and linked back to the site, something that gets easily lost when images are being shared.

The company state in its terms and conditions that such images can only be used for non-commercial purposes, although its definition of commercial isn’t entirely clear. While it lists advertising and merchandising as examples, it doesn’t specify whether blogs or news sites with ads fall under this definition, something that may be cleared up over the coming days.


(Image: Getty Images)

What’s to stop people from taking a screenshot of an embedded image and posting it on their own site?

Not a lot, but that doesn’t make Getty’s decision as risky or as pointless as you might think. Embedded images rely on people being honest about where they source them from, and if it’s a case that people are using Google image search because they believe the images they find can be used for free, they will be more likely to use the embed function.

At the moment, there are a large number of images from Getty that are circulating the web, unlicensed and with no attribution, that it’s never going to recover. At least now, it places a measure that will make this less of an issue, but it still requires people to be honest enough to use it.

Also, the embed are only available in certain dimensions. While it’s possible to resize the image, making it larger can result in only part of the image appearing on screen, meaning the only way to have control over that is to purchase the image itself.

Does this mean I can post images on Facebook/Twitter?

No, unless you count sharing the link to the site as posting. The entire purpose of embedded images is to give Getty some control over its images, and that’s difficult to do on social sites like Facebook and Twitter which it has no control over. You only need to look at the numerous accounts on Twitter which tweet photos without attribution or licencing to understand this.

At least through embedded images, it allows them to benefit from this by seeing how their images are being used, which brings us to the main question.

What does Getty Images gain from this?

There are two main benefits behind this approach. The first is it gives the company access to data from all embedded images – for example, it can find out which images are popular for example and how often it’s shared – while the second, and more important reason, is the potential to place ads in embedded images.

How ads in a stream would work isn’t entirely clear – it’s likely it will begin placing ads into embedded images when it grows in popularity – but it does hint the direction it wants to take things. In its terms of use, it says:

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 monetise its use without any compensation to you.

Consider this for a moment. A large number of sites earn money through ads placed on its site. A site on its own can only earn so much, but if you have a situation where hundreds of thousands of sites are using embedded images and have ads on them, that’s going to add up.

That’s what Getty Images is working towards and when you combine that with the data it extracts, allowing it to figure out which images are more popular, it makes a high-risk move potentially very lucrative.

However, the success of this is completely dependent upon people using the service, and while it’s very much a decision rooted in business, if people are happy to use them, then it’s unlikely anyone will care what the reasons are behind it.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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