Getty Images gives the web 35 million pictures as a free sample

A photograph of the webpage that Getty Images would send to people it found to be using its stock images without permission prior to starting any costly legal action. With the company's announcement that it would make a large portion of its photo library free to use, seeing the page will likely be less common.

Getty Images is the motherlode of photos for the web and for print, with more than 80 million pictures, and the company has been rigorous about charging for the use of those pictures.  Until now. 

The company has announced that it is making 35 million of those images available for free.  

Like this:

Letting everyone use photos for free may not sound like a great business plan. But it beats the status quo.   

"If you have content that gets used by somebody else, and it gets used for free, then your only option is to sue them, and that’s a really terrible option," says Michael Mandel, chief economist for the Progressive Policy Institute.

Getty says that’s exactly where it’s been up to now.  By allowing users to embed the photos, the company gets some upgrades:  

Getty’s branding comes with the embed, and so does a link back to the company's site, where users can pay to license photos, including the millions of images that are not part of this giveaway.  

Getty can also collect data on who looks at the free photos.  The company's terms of service say it can even include ads, which it may do that down the road.

That sounds pretty good to Joshua Benton, who runs the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard.  

"If this takes off, they would have an enormous amount of data about what kinds of photos people were looking at," he says. "And what kind of sites they were looking at. And that could really power a targeted-advertising business that you can imagine could generate a lot of revenue."

Which sounds a lot like the way YouTube operates these days.

"Exactly," says Benton. "Think how much value YouTube has gotten by allowing its videos to be embedded everywhere. It's essentially built out another advertising platform for Google."

Meanwhile, Getty says photographers will not receive additional payments when their photos appear embedded in blogs and Tweets through the giveaway program. The company says its existing contracts with photographers allow Getty to use their images for promotional purposes, and it says that language covers this giveaway.

The company doesn't expect the program to cut much into its existing sales:  The strings attached to the embedded photos, like Getty's branding, will limit their appeal to larger publishers.  And the free embeds remain off-limits for strictly commercial uses, like advertisements.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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