Common sense dictates that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join in. But by making 35 million images free and available to the Internet public with an embed code, Getty Images is doing one better: If you can’t beat them, rechannel whatever they’re doing so that it benefits you!
The image service announced Wednesday night that the bulk of its massive collection of professional photos will now be available for free to personal blogs and other non-commercial sites that embed the photos through a code similar to the one already used for YouTube videos and tweets. (You won’t find any Getty embeds in this post because it’s not a personal site — we still license the old-fashioned way.) The change has been greeted like some kind of major capitulation. But that’s actually not quite true: This is merely the latest move in a slow shift toward a new and more realist take on digital monetization — a shift that’s been going on for years.
Simply put, Getty realized — like music publishers before it — that people will blissfully post and trade content online, regardless of little technicalities like copyright law.
“Look, if you want to get a Getty image today, you can find it without a watermark very simply,” Craig Peters, a Getty business executive, told The Verge. “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… Our content was everywhere already.”
Faced with this problematic and culturally entrenched situation, Getty basically had a binary choice: punish anyone who engages in said behavior, or find a way to go with it.
Publishers have, famously, tried both. Early on in the war on piracy, the Recording Industry Association of America launched brutal, six-figure legal battles against consumers who so much as downloaded a song. The National Music Publishers Association threatened a lawsuit against the lyrics site Rap Genius in November. And Getty itself has filed seven lawsuits against online infringers, including five in a single week this January.
But as time has passed, and as this type of litigation has proved both ineffective as a deterrent, and dangerous as a source of bad PR, publishers have gradually opted for a more nuanced approach. They’re not “giving up” on copyright so much as retrofitting it for the digital age.
“These types of suits are generally counterproductive, both to getting the artist paid and to innovation,” Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me in November.
So publishers have done just that — innovate. YouTube, through a licensing agreement brokered in 2011 by the National Music Publishers Association and rights-management group Harry Fox, runs ads against user videos that include copyrighted songs and pays a dividend to publishers. Networks give shows away on Hulu and in day-after episode streams, both accompanied by frequent ads. Even HBO, by tweaking its subscription models to make it easier to see shows legally — and by asserting, loudly and often, that piracy benefits shows through social buzz — has tacitly taken a similar approach.
Getty won’t serve ads on its photos — at least not yet. (The embedding technology allows for it, and Peters has said he will leave the option open.) But Getty will collect, and presumably use and/or sell, data from users who embed.
Rest assured that no matter what Getty does, other media companies will be watching. In fact, the only big question is which industry will move next to follow its example. Maybe, in a year or two or five, movie studios will lay down their lawsuits and publish films direct to the web — saving pirates the trouble of torrenting films in exchange for lengthy ad breaks or a pre-roll marketing quiz.
That may not make up for whatever profits the company lost in the transition from the old-school licensing model. But it does account for economic and cultural realities — which is more than the copyright diehards can claim.