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Getty Images Opens Its Image Library For Limited Cost-Free Usage Via Embed Player

by Ralph Windsor on March 7, 2014

Earlier this week, stock media leviathan, Getty Images announced that is was going to allow some limited cost-free non-commercial usage of its library of 35m images.  They have to be housed within their own embed player which is similar to the method employed by YouTube where the media resides on their server and is effectively a hot-link.

The definition of ‘non-commercial usage’ is somewhat vague but still just about legally explicit enough; if you operate a not-for-profit personal blog or social media account then you are permitted to use the embedded viewer even if you include adverts.  If you use their images to directly promote a product or service that is classed as commercial usage.  Less clear cut are news sites, especially high volume national press outlets.  In theory, they too are permitted to use these images for free, however, they also have to use the aforementioned embed player, which Getty reserve the right to ‘monetise’ (i.e. stick ads on) and of course, the player itself is an advert for Getty themselves too.  Images in some of their high-end rights managed collections are not being offered via Embed and you will still need to licence them for a fee.  Oliver Laurent, writing on the British Journal of Photography website wrote an article yesterday, 10 facts about Getty Images’ embed feature, which is a good summary of the main points.

To me, this development seems like the start of the end-game in the chasing down of the price for stock photography to essentially nothing.  One point not generally understood outside photographic circles is that Getty Images are agents for most of their contributors, who are real people (not employed by Getty) that have to go out and shoot the photos and potentially re-touch or enhance them also.  Free embedding might offer a lucrative advertising channel for Getty in their capacity as agents, but, as far as I am aware, the photographers who provide the raw material with will not see any of this revenue.  Getty have effectively decided to give their work away for nothing in order to use it to generate advertising inventory which only they will commercially benefit from, apart from the more nebulous concept of ‘exposure’ for a given photographer (which might not translate to money they can spend).  I note that this is a business model very successfully pursued by Google also.

Getty will also be able to save a substantial amount of legal expense chasing up unauthorised usage.  Will that be passed on photographers in the form of increased commission to reflect their reduced costs?  I suspect not.  The model for anyone in the commercial photography sector seems to be heading towards something slightly more dubious, like the music industry, where if you are ‘unsigned’ then you are obliged to give your work away for nothing and only a few superstar celebrities will be properly promoted and paid (as long as they are successful enough to cover their own bill).  Musicians have the advantage of being able to go out and do live gigs which obviously is not an option for photographers.

The other big issue is data privacy.  Embed will generate a substantial amount of commercially significant data about what images are used and where.  I don’t know if Getty are likely to start stuffing tracking cookies into the embed code, but if they did then they can build profiles of visitors based on what images they have been served and cross-reference that back to their taxonomy.  This Business Intelligence is, therefore, also an asset which can be sold to advertisers who wish to employ their channel – or at least used to help with more precise targeting.

It is almost certainly coincidental that Shutterstock announced their moves into the DAM software market this week,but it indicates some wider trends which may well affect DAM and not in wholly positive way either.  Getty’s Embed is likely to have some kind of immediate impact on the microstock market- although for sales of material you need to customise like clip art etc then they are still not in direct danger, for now.  What both Getty and Shutterstock’s news suggests to me is that the bigger commercial stock media operations are now getting ready to acknowledge that the bottom is about to fully drop out of the classic fee-based approach to image sales.  You can trace this back from royalty free images a decade or more ago through microstock and now Getty’s Embed (and I would expect many others to copy them).  This will no doubt motivate many stock media libraries to think about where else they can generate revenue.  Advertising channels like Getty Embed only work if you have very large collections as otherwise the scale is insufficient to generate worthwhile data and enough paid for clicks on ads.  The other obvious alternative is using your expertise in setting up libraries to offer them to corporations who might need to do the same.

This isn’t a completely new development and I am aware of a few more buccaneering stock photo libraries who have had world domination plans based on a horizontal market integration strategy (with varying degrees of success) but it was not hitherto especially widespread.  That might all change now.  Whether there are too many other libraries with any spare cash (let alone enough to buy a DAM vendor)  is harder to say, but a few could well begin to consider selling their own platforms as a general DAM solution, especially as many may well have some corporations who are existing clients of their image business anyway.  Getty themselves have already done this themselves with their Media Manager product and it is an obvious angle to help stem any losses from declining image licence revenues.

The next stage in this trend is even more DAM vendors coming on to the market and another abundance of supply with the corresponding downward price pressures that would imply.  The SaaS side of the market is already becoming highly homogenised and with limited differentiation between applications (aided by many DAM vendors’ own lack of imagination, it should be said).  Although there are various open source options available which you can download without paying anything, they are not really free since you usually need some reasonable expertise to set them up and you usually will have to pay that person something for their time.  A fully free SaaS DAM, however, with vendors incrementally raising the capacity or features of the entry level edition does not seem beyond the realms of possibility.  In other words, the deflationary price spiral which has laid waste to the stock photography market might be heading to DAM next.

Clearly, there are going to be many mitigating factors to limit the extent of this as it applies to individual operators, but it would suggest to me that the only pragmatic strategy for DAM vendors to proceed is by differentiating themselves and specialising in something that everyone else is not.  In this sense, Best of Breed for DAM might become an essential survival strategy for vendors that plan to remain in business for more than a few more years.

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