Last month I wrote about how search engines like Google and Bing let users filter image searches so that only images available under Creative Commons licenses show up in search results. This helps users find images that they can paste into their blogs and websites with confidence that they aren’t violating copyrights. Last week Getty Images, the world’s largest stock image agency, announced a new service that’s essentially complementary to this search engine feature: users can select photos from Getty’s repository and embed them in blogs, websites, social media posts, and so on, legally and at no charge. Getty Images is launching the embed feature at SXSW in Austin, TX this week.
The image embedding feature works very much like analogous features on many other content-sharing sites: videos on YouTube, presentations on SlideShare, documents on Scribd, etc. More to the point, it works much like the analogous feature on Flickr. (Interestingly, WordPress supports Getty Images embedding but rejects Flickr photo embeds — which can’t be a coincidence.) The feature is available for many, though not all, of Getty’s vast archive of images — including current celebrity photos like this one:
To use this feature, do a search on Getty Images’ website and mouse over an image in search results. A popup window will appear. If the popup has an embed button (“</>”), click on it. It will display a few lines of HTML code. Select the code, copy it, and paste it into your website or blog. The resulting image has a URL that leads to a Getty Images web page with information about licensing the image for commercial uses. As you can see, it also has its own embed button.
In contrast, with Google Images, you can simply search, select an image, right-click the image, select Copy Image, and paste it into your blog. That, in a nutshell, is the problem that Getty Images has to solve. This is a particular problem with still images. It’s not possible to right-click, copy, and paste a video, music track, PDF document, or presentation into your blog or website, but it is possible with images.
With this move, Getty Images has done what so many other content licensors have done in the face of easy and rampant unauthorized use of content online: it has given up on directly monetizing use of its content by anyone other than businesses that can actually sign licensing agreements and assume liability. In fact, this type of embedding feature has been available on so many other media sharing sites (see above) for so long that I imagine the decision to implement it must have resulted from long, contentious discussions within Getty Images, and/or between Getty Images and photographers and other image sources. (The fact that not all images have embed rights reinforces this theory.)
So, instead of direct revenue, Getty Images is evidently hoping to use images for indirect revenue through analytics and promotion. The most obvious benefit is that it can use the images that people embed in their blog posts and websites as promotions for commercial licensing of those images to publishers, ad agencies, and so on. But that’s not much of a benefit: professionals who license images commercially are unlikely to search for images they want on blogs and random websites.
Instead, the bigger potential benefit has got to be data collection for analytics. With the embed feature, Getty Images hopes to be able to amass data about popularity of images — and the people, places, or things in them — that they can sell. For example, data about placements of photos like the one above of Lorde ought to be of interest to her management. Getty Images could also use the data to help it determine which kinds of images it should be acquiring from photographers and other licensors, and what it should be charging for commercial uses of them.
This new feature is also complementary to the deal that Getty Images made with Pinterest last October. That deal focused on the many images that users post on Pinterest to which Getty Images holds the rights. Getty Images’ ImageIRC image recognition technology identifies those images and collects licensing fees for them from Pinterest — which benefits commercially by using those images to draw traffic to its site.
The difference here is that Getty Images has stopped imagining (if it ever did) that it’s possible to get licensing fees for images on individuals’ blogs and websites — even if those blogs and websites make money through ad sales or other ways — that exceed the cost of policing their copyrights. The popup windows for embedding images say “Embedded images may not be used for commercial purposes,” but Getty Images surely doesn’t expect that it’s worthwhile to enforce that very effectively.
It remains to be seen whether the lure of Big Data for Getty Images turns out to be a siren song. The trouble with giving things away is that it becomes much harder to charge for them again later.