The World's Biggest Photo Service Just Made Its Images Free to Use

The World's Biggest Photo Service Just Made Its Images Free to Use

The news: Getty Images, Inc. has been a dominant force in global photography for almost 20 years. But until now, the stock image company has maintained prohibitive usage parameters, making their photos hard to license without forking over boat loads of money.

That changed today when Getty announced a new tool allowing anybody — from CNN to the lowliest foodie blog — to use its images for free. The tool applies to roughly 40 million of the company's approximated 150 million photos, ridding them of the hated watermark that exposes unlicensed users. For bloggers, journalists and start-up news sites worldwide, this is basically Christmas.

Before:

After:

But why? Getty Images isn't doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. Rampant unlicensed use of their photos — often done simply by swiping them off sites that have already paid for them — has prompted the company to re-evaluate its methods. "Look, if you want to get a Getty image today, you can find it without a watermark very simply," says Craig Peters, a Getty business development exec. "The way you do that is you go to one of our customer sites and you right-click. Or you go to Google Image search or Bing Image Search and you get it there. And that's what's happening ... Our content was everywhere already."

Getty decided their best solution was to equip photos with this new "embed" tool, allowing them to funnel ads and other content into whatever site activates it. This would also let them collect user information, thereby creating entirely new revenue streams. These features aren't active yet, but according to Peters, they're definitely on the radar: "We've certainly thought about it, whether it's data or it's advertising," he says. "We've seen what YouTube's done with monetizing their embed capabilities ... I don't know if that's going to be appropriate for us or not."

Options are important these days. An adjustment of this magnitude speaks to how much digital and social media have shifted the parameters of journalism and ownership. Images fuel the delivery of web content now more than ever, and content creators are unlikely to let a little snag like licensing impede their progress. Companies like BuzzFeed embody the web traffic benefits of focusing on social distribution, while Facebook is constantly adjusting its interface to accommodate more engaging content — especially news-related.

These trends make Getty's licensing decision all the more important. As access to these quality images grows broader, so too does the quality of the sites that use them. This could spell an Internet-wide expansion of quality content, which is never a bad thing.

Is this a risky move for Getty? Yes and no. Digital licensing has been a double-edged sword: it was largely responsible for the company's nearly $100 million in increased revenue between 2007 and 2011, but it's also been hard on photographers. Instead of the previous professional stipend system, Getty more frequently enlists the talents of amateur and freelance photographers — whom they don't have to pay as much.

However, the company hopes the revenue options that accompany the embed tool will provide a remedy: "The principle is to turn what's infringing use with good intentions [...] into something that's valid licensed use with some benefits going back to the photographer," says Peters, "and that starts really with attribution and a link back."

Time will tell if these benefits materialize.