Photographers Hate Getty's Plan to Give Away Their Work

Photograph by Christian Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

Getty’s decision to let anyone with a website or social media presence freely embed photographs for non-commercial use was bound to rub photographers the wrong way. Sure enough, trade groups representing people who try to make a living snapping shutters say they are at work on an alternative way to compensate photographers as their images spread around the Internet because, in their view, Getty sure isn’t going to do it.

“The person who owns the copyright—the contributor, the one whose creativity made the image—is not getting anything from this. Getty is,” says Michael Grecco, chair of the advocacy committee for American Photographic Artists, a national organization for professional photographers. Grecco, who personally specializes in celebrity portraiture, was disillusioned with Getty before this week’s announcement and had removed his photographs from its library in favor of negotiating licenses, one by one.

In an interview earlier this week, Craig Peters, a business development executive at Getty, said opponents of embedding would turn out to be a small minority clinging to a past that no longer exists; Getty plans to make money from uses that were simply not going to pay off in other ways.

But groups representing photographers—including APA and the American Society of Media Photographers—believe Getty’s plan is tailored for the benefits to flow to the company. By encouraging free use of the photos, the agency will gather information it could use for advertising or other purposes. Getty says it will share that windfall with photographers—if such revenue ever materializes. The company’s control over the data associated with photo use will give it a pretty strong hand whenever the day comes to negotiate splitting up that pie.

“I would hope some of that revenue would work back to photographers,” says Eugene Mopsik, executive director of ASMP. “I’m not holding my breath.”

So the photographers groups are working on their own plan. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy to explain as the one from Getty. It requires money to change hands, and it needs action from Washington.

The model favored by photographers is that of the music industry, in which people who use music agree to pay a certain amount and then an organization such as  SoundExchange gathers the money and doles it out to rights holders, taking a cut for itself. Mopsik says Internet companies like Tumblr or Pinterest could negotiate blanket contracts for their users, simplifying the process. But this kind of collective licensing would require government approval. James Silverberg, a lawyer for APA, says the organizations expect to have a proposal ready within a year.

The photographers’ plan wouldn’t be bad for Getty, which holds loads of photo rights. Nor is Mopsik entirely dismissive of Getty’s approach. After all, someone has to use technology to come up with new business models in an industry that is becoming increasingly unsustainable for its primary workforce.

“There’s been a failure on the part of the photo industry to come up with a frictionless means to license images,” says Mopsik. “We just haven’t done it.”

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