If Photos Are Free, Will Anyone Take Them?

Photographers don't sound happy about Getty's new plan to distribute its images for free.

Mar 10 2014, 9:30pm
"Isn't it great to see our careers disappear?" Image: Shutterstock

Photography has never been an easy career path to find stability in. The value and sheer number of opportunities in photojournalism has plummeted in recent years thanks to the concomitant rise of online media. And even in the realm of fine art, photos generally don't command the same eye-popping price tags that, say, a painting or sculpture can. In both editorial and creative pursuits, photography has proven uniquely susceptible to the worst kind of market contractions.

Understandably, then, last week's news that Getty Images was making 35 million of its pictures freely available to be embedded on any website sparked a fresh round of debate about the future of photography as a viable business or professional trade.

Getty is the world's largest repository for photographs. As many in the financial press noted when covering last week's news, the company was bowing to the pressure of rampant online piracy: since it couldn't chase down every single person using an image without permission, it was opting for a YouTube-style business model instead.

That makes sense for Getty as a company. As Marketplace noted in its report, trying to sue every person abusing Getty's terms and conditions is an impossibly costly endeavor. The new embedding scheme, meanwhile, opens the company up to a new business model further down the road. As Nieman Journalism Lab's Joshua Benton pointed out in Marketplace's segment:

If this takes off, they would have an enormous amount of data about what kinds of photos people were looking at. 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.

But will this really provoke a profound a shift in the photography market? Other key players in the space don't sound so convinced. Speaking to Forbes, Shutterstock CEO Jon Oringer sounded unperturbed, saying that the new policy won't really change much of the market from where it stands today for a few reasons. First, Getty only said that it's going to allow sites to embed the photos for non-commercial purposes

“It’s not very landscape changing at all,” Oringer told Forbes. “You can’t use their images for commercial use and 99.9% of our business is commercial use. We sell to businesses who sell other stuff, so we’re just going to concentrate on doing that.”

Even when it comes to non-commercial purposes like the ones in which many editorial publications would be interested, Oringer wasn't convinced that Getty's new plan would provoke a sea change because "major news agencies" wouldn't want to risk offending their own advertising clients in the process.

Whether you find Oringer's argument here or Getty's new plan more convincing, seeing which one wins out in the end will just be a question of time. Getty is experimenting with a new business model—one that needs to develop gradually.

By restricting usage to an embedded player, Getty hasn't made photos completely free; using them in a normal capacity requires payment per usual. 

But there's another factor to consider here separate from the high-level corporate drama: What is this going to mean for individual photographers?

Many critics like Slate's Katie Long have likened Getty's shift to the way that the music industry has been forced to adapt to the economic realities of the digital revolution. That's not exactly encouraging for the individual content creators in question. Save the top tier of established rock stars, most musicians have seen the value of their work plummet thanks to the rise of popular consumer-friendly services like Spotify.

But even then, they have a leg up compared to visual artists like photographers because musicians have always been able to monetize their work through a number of different means. If you're not making enough money from Spotify (and many aren't), you can still go on tour, sell swag, and ask more of your most devoted fans. It's hard to imagine photographers—particularly the kind selling their wares through stock photo agencies—doing any of those things.

In a long and provocative report on the PhotoShelter blog, Allen Murabayashi checked in with a number of professional photographers to hear their thoughts on the issue. The main takeaway? Almost every photographer sounds terrified. One New York based photographer told him: “I knew I should have moved out west and been a fry cook.”

It's difficult to make blanket statement for digital photography as a whole. Established photojournalists, for instance, won't see their work devalued (at least, any more than it already has been) since Getty isn't freeing up its newsworthy pictures in the new deal. But for photographers who already have their work included in the vast teeming pile of stock images? As one photographer said to PhotoShelter: "The race to the bottom continues."

The fear that comment highlighted is one of the value of any good or service diminishing radically once it gets posted online and is subsequently left susceptible to copying or outright theft. Of course, the counterpoint explicit in Getty's new plan is that since that's already happening, the company is trying to address it as best it can. But photographer Darren Carroll makes a compelling argument about the precedent this sets. Sure, images weren't really worth much already. But as long as Getty was holding out, individual photographers could still make a legitimate claim about their work being exploited.

Again, from the PhotoShelter piece:

This will immediately and adversely affect the ability of anyone to attempt to recoup compensation for images that are ‘stolen’ or otherwise appropriated by bloggers or other websites, because Getty has effectively established a price point of $0.00 for the 1000-pixel, web-only, non-exclusive editorial usage category. So now, if someone ‘steals’ an image of mine and I ask for payment, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a blogger (or, for that matter, a judge or jury attempting to compute actual damages) to make the case that they owe me exactly what the going market rate is.

In other words: Once the gatekeeper agrees that the work isn't worth anything, it literally becomes worthless to the person who made it. On the other hand, because Getty's embedded photos have to be embedded in their own player,  it's unlikely that media companies are going to be relying on them much. (Online or not, you can't exactly use one for the main image or thumbnail for a story.) Smaller websites surely will, but would they have had photo budgets in the first place?

Whether or not Carroll's fear turns out to be the grim reality, Getty's new policy reflects a tragic admission of the depreciating monetary value of photography. Sure, there is some promise of a new business model that could emerge from Getty's plan. If the embeds really do end up resembling something akin to how Google shares content hosted on YouTube, Getty may very well give birth to a new class of web celebrities akin to today's web video stars.

The thing that's being monetized here isn't the artwork itself. It's the backbone of data behind all of this work. Getty might find a way to reap even bigger rewards than it already does from its new plan. But I'm having trouble picturing how photographers themselves stand to gain anything in the process.