Protesting Too Much About Getty Images

When a business that is in the business of making money makes any move toward openness, I think of it as a pretty good thing, within the context of living in a society where everybody needs money to buy things like food and shelter.

So I embraced the news that Getty, whose images I have never used and probably never will – stop me in the corridor some time and ask me how I feel about stock images in anything – were going to be allowing embedding of a huge section of their catalogue, with forced attribution and links that benefit them.

I embraced it because to me, it’s a pretty good thing when a corporation or organisation works out a way to navigate through the cultural sense of entitlement users of the contemporary web have, without resorting to fear tactics, litigation, or DRM that breaks the content that we’re trying to use.

Anybody who has seen a movie legitimately in the last two decades has had to sit through a bunch of anti-piracy stuff. For several years buying music online often meant being quite limited in where you could use that stuff – a giant pain in the arse when you’d actually paid for it. And in the world of PC gaming, consumers have been dogged by games that were broken at point of sale by security.

Alongside this, people have been severely punished by the law for file-sharing, and apparently Getty themselves have “protected their ownership” of images with punitive litigation.

All of those methods are corporate ways of dealing with a cultural problem, and they don’t really help anyone. And all the while, the social internet has been moving further and further into the wild west of sharing stuff with abandon, and without attribution.


To my mind, there are two major issues that producers or distributors of media – from publishers to libraries/educators to artists and everyone in-between – have to deal with: revenue and credit.

There’s a huge crossover between these two areas, but I think it’s fair to say that while businesses may care more about revenue, and individuals may care more about credit, anybody who creates or sells anything has an amount of concern that they split between those two things.

Litigation solves the first problem for many, but favours the organisations or individuals with money to spend on lawyers – an artist whose work has been stolen by Hot Topic is going to struggle to get any money back. Meanwhile, the second problem, of items shared without credit, is spreading like a pandemic. And it hits photography and illustration the hardest, because unlike music or video, ANYONE can share an image without attribution – you don’t have to be able to work editing software to do it. In fact, the way most images are presented online, it’s easier to share without attribution than with it.

This isn’t a great situation for artists and photographers, and photographers who are artists. If one is just a hobbyist who wants to share their work with others, removing them from the equation not only isn’t “fair”, it actually makes it impossible for them to benefit from the confidence boost or learning experience of knowing that their work is appreciated. If they’re sharing some of their work online in the hope of gaining potential paying clients, removing credit actually affects their livelihood.

But Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter make sharing images in this unthinking way incredibly easy, and the culture of ambient plagiarism spreads.


Where the twin concerns of credit and commerce become inextricably linked, and the “harmless” behaviour of removing credit comes into sharp focus, is when corporate-minded people work out a way to exploit this shifting culture.

I think most people’s perception of how okay using other people’s work, without saying whose it is, shifts once huge amount of profits to individuals get involved. That’s when “fair use” becomes exploitation, as has happened with the wildly popular cluster of image-sharing accounts agglomerating around the @HistoryInPics model.

That account has over a million followers, but it isn’t the open cultural service it seems to be – the two people behind it are incredibly culturally savvy, and have become very rich because of it – and has a very antisocial attitude to giving credit where it’s due – are almost defiant about it.

(Worth noting that since the article I just linked to came out, but possibly not because of it, the account seems to be adding photographer credits to more of their images. There’s also a small but growing sub-culture of people correcting or adding attribution where it’s lacking on these accounts – @PicPedant is one of the more prominent ones, but has fewer than ten thousand followers.)


In our office, as in most areas of eLearning, and in education, discussion of Getty’s course-correction has been gently contentious and somewhat binary. Early discussions centred around whether Getty was now “as good as” a resource as Creative Commons. More recently, there’s been reminiscing about Getty’s past heavy-handedness when dealing with illegal use of their images.

This blog-post got shared around today, by Phil Bradley: “The Trojan Horse of Getty ‘Free’ Images“, and it seems to confirm a lot of biases. Bradley links on to a post by Karen Blakeman: “Getty Images is NOT Making All Of It’s Photos Freely Available“. Both are pretty anti Getty, and suggestive of conspiracy or hidden motives – although Blakeman seems rightly more agitated about misinformation that people across her social networks are spreading than by Getty themselves, and seems more interested in directing people to their T&Cs, which is always worthwhile.

But among all the scare-quotes and innuendo and obverse discussion, one huge point seems to have been missed, and that’s that Getty aren’t trying to solve the problem that everyone has decided they’re supposed to be solving.

They’re even totally transparent about it.

On their site at the moment, under the Services Menu embed link, Getty state the following:

“Getty Images is leading the way in creating a more visual world. Our new embed feature makes it easy, legal, and free for anybody to share our images on websites, blogs, and social media platforms.”

Most discussion I’ve seen seems to be around how one interprets the word “free” – I tend to take it as meaning “one doesn’t have to pay”, personally – but the pertinent part is “easy, legal”.

(Blakeman complains that people are saying that “all” of Getty’s images are available, and she’s right, because it’s inaccurate, but as an opening gesture I’m going to allow that 35 million images shows a level of conviction that I’m not going to chastise Getty themselves for.)

People have decided that the problem Getty should be responsible for solving is “where can I get free images that I can use anywhere?”, but talking to CNET Australia to promote this initiative, Craig Peters, a senior vice president at Getty stated that:

“What we’re trying to do is take a behaviour that already exists and enable it legally, then try to get some benefits back to the photographer primarily through attribution and linkage”

While people with bad memories of the company believe that Getty is just looking for a way of conning you into using their content, so that they can sue you for it later, it seems way more like Getty have worked out that litigation is expensive, and isn’t as good a revenue stream as their competitors over at YouTube and elsewhere are using.

“people were stealing imagery because they didn’t have an alternative. Our job here is to provide a better alternative to stealing, not only one that’s legal but one that’s better.”

They aren’t being shy about how they might exploit it later, either. That advertising Trojan Horse Bradley mentioned?

Craig Peters to CNET Australia again:

“Over time there are other monetisation options we can look at… That could be data options, advertising options. If you look at what YouTube has done with their embed capabilities, they are serving ads in conjunction with those videos that are served around the internet.”

I don’t like the advertising model of capitalism that we’re using at the moment (it seems inefficient to me) but – and maybe this is just my weird Greek pride at play – I think a Trojan Horse is something different.

(That statement is worth a read in full, by the way. It’s at – link.)

I probably don’t need to unpick this too much, because they haven’t been circuitous about what this move may hope to achieve. People are already stealing their images, and sharing the work of artists and photographers who Getty is supposed to be representing without attribution. And people still will do that, and Getty will probably still end up suing some of those people.

But this move may in some way separate the power-user imagery-gankers from the people just trying to share nice pictures on Facebook, who maybe didn’t realise they were being jerks, and now have the option not to be.

I’d way rather see attributed links to the rights-holders on images than to ropey uncredited Buzzfeed articles.


Like I’ve said already, I’m not a fan of stock images, and I’m not likely to be a customer of Getty, although it is nice to have the option, now, should I need it.

Phil Bradley apparently does, though. A preoccupation of his piece – one that I’ve seen echoed elsewhere – is that this new scheme doesn’t allow for embedding of images in Powerpoint presentations. You can still purchase the images and use them wherever you want, I believe, but the free service doesn’t allow for it.

This seems to make sense to me, because Powerpoint presentations is outside the scope of who Getty wants to service here. The question I’d ask is “what were you doing before?” There seems to be a lot of uncertainty about what counts as commercial use, which is the one thing Getty seem really not to want – if people are using Getty images in any way relating to commerce, Getty want their cut.

But I don’t see this as so confusing: if you are using images in an area that generates revenue, directly or indirectly, or helps you professionally, it seems obvious to me that that constitutes commercial use. If you’re using the work of others to illustrate work that benefits you, then their desired rights in that case should be satisfied.


The passage that’s stuck with me the most in Bradley’s post is the one that states that for “the photographer it’s a disaster”.  It’s a paragraph that makes a lot of assertions based on assumptions of what photographers who have signed up to Getty might want, but it’s problematic for me because I don’t know how the writer has been using images up until this point. The paragraph pings about quite a bit:

“If you have licensed Getty to use your images, this isn’t something that you can opt out from.” He says, although I don’t know the veracity of that… as Blakeman complains, not all of Getty’s catalogue is available, so it’s possible that different photographers have different deals with them?

“Unless you choose to pull your images.” He continues. Which sounds like being able to opt out to me.

“There are plenty of photographers who are not going to be keen on their material being shared left right and centre with no ability to say no.” My natural tendency toward facetiousness wants to point out that this is apparently already happening, without the photographer’s credit attached, and arguably one of the reasons for most photographers signing up to Getty in the first place is that the organisation will police your copyrights for you, in a way that is mutually beneficial to the photographer and Getty. By allowing the internet to run roughshod over their clients’ attribution before, Getty were actually letting photographers down.

At the end, we get to what I feel is the real point in this argument: “I can see images that you have embedded disappearing as they get pulled, which isn’t going to look very impressive”. This is if you’re using the free, embedded images, by the way – not if you’ve bought the use of the image.

So in the end, a paragraph about photographers’ rights comes down to an example of the rights of the people wanting to use the images for free. There’s a lot of conjecture about what constitutes “editorial purposes”, and whether or not Getty will pull images for arbitrary reasons as well, but it all seems to boil down to “will they pull this free provision at some point, and make me look bad?”

And I don’t want to pull Bradley apart on this, because really all he’s doing here is voicing what’s become a common acceptance on the social internet that images belong to everyone.

But it isn’t Getty’s job to enable our sense of entitlement. We aren’t Getty’s clients – that will always be the photographers and the paying customers. This is just a bone they’re throwing us because we were taking it anyway, and maybe if they make it easy enough for us to become paying customers down the line, it’ll be easier for them than having to sue every damn one of us.


Education throws a cat among the pigeon of commercial use, and despite it being my field I don’t want to talk about it too much, beyond pointing out that, despite widespread practice to the contrary, attribution and legal use of imagery in teaching and studying is already supposed to be hugely important. Academics using content that doesn’t belong to them and that they don’t have authority to use can lead to disgrace or disciplinary, and students who do so without following attribution guidelines aren’t supposed to graduate.

As eLearning people, or technologists, promoting digital literacy among our colleagues and cohorts is our bread and butter. We should already be educating users in the implications of non-attribution, and encouraging them to make smart critical decisions about which resources they can use in their work.

That means telling them about Creative Commons repositories, and public domain images, but now I think it also has to include Getty. Trying to hide a resource like that away doesn’t stop people using it, it just allows them to drastically misuse it.



In closing, I should point out that I’m not so naive to think that an organisation like Getty are somehow sweet, socialist angels, or that they haven’t been too hard on hapless users in the past, or that they treat content creators fairly. I’m sure they are totally evil. Down with the man, and all that.

But none of those things play into why I think this gesture of theirs is important. This is potentially a huge thing, in as much as it subverts the way we currently think of attribution, ownership and licensing of creative works. From a purely capitalist perspective, when a huge media organisation works out that it might make more money by giving a little for free, and not treating consumers like criminals by default, that’s massive. Flickr, before they were swallowed up by Yahoo, made similar realisations, and without them most of us would never have heard of Creative Commons.

Maybe we’d prefer that everything belonged to everybody, but we shouldn’t always be so ready to let perfect be the enemy of good. As technologists, we should try to be as pragmatic and agnostic about tech as possible.

Yes I know I’m useless at this myself, but I’m trying, and that’s all that matters, right?

“The trojan horse of Getty ‘free’ images” by Phil Bradley – link
“Getty Images is NOT making all of it’s photos freely available” by Karen Blakeman – link
Getty images Embed Images – link
“Getty makes 35 million images free for sharing” by Lexy Savvides for C|net Australia – link