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Getty Images Confronts Online Copyright Infringement With A Carrot – And A Stick

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Stock photography giant Getty Images took a gamble yesterday, releasing 35 million files for free non-commercial and editorial uses. Images are served in a YouTube-style embedder that displays a credit and links back to the licensing page at Getty. How does it work? Look around. I have used the embedder to display a few of Getty’s wares in this very post.

The genius of free embeds is to convert the masses of small-fry bloggers that illegally swipe Getty’s photos into Getty’s own advertising army. If the strategy works, embeds will be more than making lemonade from infringement lemons. It will be a coup of organic ad placement. Millions of domains running Getty ads without Getty having to drop a dime.

The embed code also feeds Getty piles of potentially lucrative user data. As such, the move is symptomatic of the broad shift in online business models towards monetizing data while cheapening content.

What’s the catch? Primarily, Getty risks eating their seed corn. Getty’s photographers, already a beleaguered lot, aren’t paid up front. Instead, they share a shrinking slice of licensing revenue. As the photographers’ cut from zero-fee photos is also zero, it is becoming hard to see an incentive for new photographers to sign up when they can earn an equal amount of nothing posting their photos to flickr. I’d not bet on Getty being able to harvest the world’s top photography talent, not when free agency is as easy as it has ever been.

Buried in the terms of the embed is perhaps the most intriguing part of the story. Getty’s conception of commercial versus non-commercial use has taken a significant shift:

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.

This language may not seem bold, but by demarcating only direct advertising use and merchandise as “commercial”, Getty opens embedded use to news services. News sites that make money serving advertisements- like, for instance, Scientific American- are no longer considered commercial by Getty.

I find this policy unfair to the professional photographers who spent their own cash to create the images you see here, but that is where Getty has drawn their enforcement line. I suppose they are betting enough of you will click through to make a purchase.

Yes? Have you bought something?

I thought so. Onward.

While Getty is opening up to small users, it is also escalating enforcement against commercial infringers. After years of not filing lawsuits against infringers in spite of blustery demand letters, Getty suddenly filed five suits this January. Where there is a carrot, there is often a stick.

A few weeks ago, Getty Images Inc. went on a lawsuit spree of sorts, filing federal copyright-infringement complaints over images it claims have been used without its permission. Court records show the Seattle-based stock-photography giant filed five single-image lawsuits in the month of January alone. The legal complaints are virtually identical, employing a cookie-cutter template differentiated largely by the names of the defendants and images in question.

I suspect these two policy changes are not concurrent by accident. Getty has the same frustratingly persistent infringement problems that plague all online content creators. By granting the little fish a pass, they free up resources to more effectively counter the rule-breaking sharks. I would not want to be one of Getty Image’s corporate infringers in 2014.

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Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. evelynjlamb 3:47 pm 03/6/2014

    Thanks, Alex, I was hoping you’d post about this. I understand that legally I can now embed Getty images without worrying about it, but what’s your feeling on it morally? Given that the photographers probably had no say in this decision, should I avoid using them anyway, or should I treat this as an issue for the photographers to take up with Getty if they are not satisfied with it? (I guess I’m assuming a photographer could terminate an agreement with Getty if he or she did not like the new terms.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. MichaelGG 6:08 pm 03/6/2014

    “You may only use embedded Getty Images Content for editorial purposes”

    This is very nearly what “Fair Use” doctrine already allows. It’s a bit of a slippery doctrine so it is nice to see Getty declare where the line (for them) has been drawn.

    I used to be an agency photographer but as such I was severely limited in my right to freelance. With modern digital cameras in every household the landscape has changed. Simple “clipart” photography is not often professionally shot and quite often this lack is self evident. Where the agencies still succeed is in photography that must be exceptionally good. I suspect even fewer skilled photographers exist now as compared to 10 or 20 years ago.

    A side effect of Getty allowing their images to be published more widely is to try to restore a public sense of what is a good photograph. LIFE magazine, and the leader of good photography National Geographic, raise the bar — but millions of web pages including Facebook *lower* the bar of public expectation.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 6:58 pm 03/6/2014

    The ethics are a sticky issue, Evelyn. I’m still processing this move myself. My gut feeling is to not use Getty’s work except for their archival material which- while usually copyrighted- comes from photographers who are no longer active.

    Getty’s photographers cannot opt out of the free sharing program without breaking their contract and leaving the agency, as I understand it.

    Link to this
  4. 4. ImageGameDay 12:19 pm 05/29/2014

    If you sales focus is incredibly narrow, such as ANTS, and you are attempting to make a living from selling ANT IMAGES, then you have a failed business model.

    Wild’s railings sound like the 1970′s editorials that decried the implementation of ‘the computer’ in business because so many jobs would be displaced.

    Change with the times. This direction has been on the horizon for a decade.

    Simply put, you need another source of income other than a Scientific American blog and bug pictures. For example, Wild has a Ph.D. He should teach — and then his bug picture income would be icing on the cake.

    It is the desperate attempt to make a living from bug pictures that generates the desperate rhetoric we hear from Wild again, and again.

    Scientific American needs an ant blogger, not an antiquated photographer attempting to live on a revenue stream from ant pictures and his blog. And certainly not someone espousing fringe beliefs regarding the direction images have been taking on the internet for at least a decade.

    Get someone young and cool! Wild is old, antiquated and out of touch.

    Link to this

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