Getty Images tell the world their stock photos are worthless…oh…sorry, no…just free

On Thursday last week, Getty Images threw a nuclear bomb into the stock photography industry. They made most of their stock images free to use for newspapers, magazines and bloggers online via an embed feature. There are a few strings attached but nothing that any of these users would really care about. Not in the short-term anyway.

The free-for-all has been greeted with wild excitement by most bloggers. Before the announcement, Getty had a reputation for slapping big-buck fines on bloggers who used their images without authorisation. Now, bloggers can fill their boots for free. ‘It’s progress'. ‘Victory for blogger-power’. ‘David beats Goliath’. Evidently.

The newspapers and magazines, who can also use these images for free online, have been incredibly quiet. No doubt getting their lawyers to trawl through the Getty terms and conditions while their finance guys do a cost-benefit analysis; their tech guys look at page-layouts and their picture editors write reports on the visual pros and cons. Remember, at the moment newspapers may, if they’re not in one of Getty’s schemes, have to pay hundreds of pounds for one usage of one Getty image. That kind of money adds up very quickly. But now they could have them for free – who wouldn’t be interested in that kind of saving? One day you’re paying cold, hard cash – next it’s free! Yippee!

What about the photographer?

But there is one party in this episode who seems to have been forgotten. The photographer. Stock photographers own these images – Getty do not. Photographers create them – Getty do not. Some of the concept images that are now free will have taken that photographer a week to produce – a week’s worth of work for one image, full-time. And some people, think war photographers, will have risked their lives to capture that moment.

Photographers are not large corporate entities, they are sole-traders. They are creatives. They are the little people. They are, in fact, the visual equivalent of the blogger. So while the bloggers are all wild with excitement - and who can blame them - every time they use a free Getty image a photographer somewhere out there suffers. Which is strange in this day and age when everyone, including most bloggers, wants to be self-employed; aspires to be an entrepreneur; dreams of becoming a creative. If only to supplement the pension plan.

Stock photographers these days do not earn bucket-loads of cash. They earn less than most designers or writers. They need the money from every sale they make. And, despite what many people think, Getty only pays them 20 per cent or 30 per cent of any sale – Getty keeps 70 or 80 per cent themselves. So it has never been an equitable relationship anyway. But now…well…there’s even less point in bothering.

What does ‘free’ say about the Getty Images brand?

But for me, everything else aside, the most interesting part of this whole free thing is what it says about the Getty brand. And what it may do to that brand going forward. By making them free to use, Getty is basically saying that its images are worthless. They are not worth paying for. From a branding point of view, this is suicide.

Getty had better hope this free-images thing works for them because when you give something away for free you are saying that it’s valueless. In Getty’s case – a company that has built its brand on quality and exclusivity - that could be catastrophic. Getty would argue otherwise but this is not Spotify. No one is going to see a photograph and think: Hey, I’ll go to Getty and buy all that photographer’s back-catalogue because I love that image so much. Nor is an ad agency going to see a photo on a blog and say: Wow! I must use that Getty image in my Big Corporation of America campaign. That argument just does not wash.

Next time an ad agency needs a great photograph for a campaign they will not want to spend £10k on an image that is on 300 blogs, 25 national newspapers’ websites and in the online editions of 50 magazines. Because it’s free to millions of users, the client will not value that image. The ad agency will not be able to justify the spend. Therefore, they will not buy it. They will also not trust Getty. What if Getty decide to add that image to the embed scheme at a later date? And what if you bought an image for a campaign last month in good faith and now it’s on a load of blogs for free? That would make me very unhappy indeed.

If I was an art buyer I’d starting going to Corbis Images or Alamy or one of the smaller stock agencies – or direct to the photographer instead. At least I’d know that that image, which I paid thousands for, doesn’t feature on some bargain-bucket photo CD in Asia. Because, let’s face it, there are always people who don’t play the game. There will be individuals out there right now as I speak embedding photos, stripping the metadata and saving the unwatermarked file. And there’s nothing Getty can do about that. Nothing at all.

Why are Getty Images free?

Getty is giving them away for free to gather data in the future (see:The Dam Book). Data is the oil of the 21st Century. Which is ironic. Mark Getty, founder and former owner of Getty Images once famously said that intellectual property was the oil of the 21st Century. Not anymore in the company that bears his name. Now Getty Images is owned by a private equity firm. They paid $3.3bn for Getty. They need a return on their investment and images alone just don’t bring in that kind of cash.

The private equity group will look to exit before 2016. Data might make Getty more saleable. In fact, if I owned Getty Images and I wanted to attract a big buyer I’d think about data too. Because, there is someone out there right now with huge, mind-blowing amounts of cash. Someone who isn't Google or Yahoo - both of whom are too busy to bother. No, it's a company that loves data; loves buying things for astronomical sums: Facebook. They just bought a WhatsApp for $19 billion. Hey, buying Getty, at perhaps $5 billion, would be a piss in the wind. And think of all that DATA!!!

Further reading

Here are some links to interesting articles on the issue.

British Journal of Photography
Industry concerned about Getty Images free-for-all approach.

10 facts you need to know about Getty Images embed feature

Business Week
Photographers hate Getty Images plan to give away their work