Getty Wants to Turn Free Photos Into Profit, and It Needs Your Help

Courtesy Getty Images

The story of the photography business over the past 20 years has been marked by two shifts: The number of photographs in circulation climbs toward infinity, and the price that each one fetches falls toward zero. As a result, Getty Images, which is in the business of selling licensing rights, is increasingly willing to distribute images in exchange for nothing more than information about the public’s photo-viewing habits.

Now Getty has just introduced a mobile app, Stream, targeted at nonprofessionals to run on Apple’s new operating system. The app lets people browse through Getty’s images, with special focus on curated collections. It’s sort of like a version of Instagram featuring only professional photographers—and without an upload option.

This marks a subtle shift in Getty’s business, reaching out to users directly instead of relying on publishers and advertisers to put its photos in front of people. Getty’s website, meanwhile, still emphasizes the company’s traditional approach. It’s a frustrating place for people who like photography, full of small, watermarked images. If you want to see satisfying photos, you have to fork over money.

Earlier this year the company introduced its first direct-to-consumer product: embeddable versions of images to use on personal blogs and other websites that were never going to pay Getty a licensing fee. Getty has a reputation for litigiousness, and it sued Microsoft earlier this month over an application that created collages and slideshows, which Getty sees as a violation of its copyrights. The embedded-photo tool gave people a way to use the company’s imagery without getting a letter from its lawyers.

Getty Images Stream iPhone app
Courtesy Getty Images

Currently 600,000 embedded images are posted and active, mostly on smaller websites with modest readerships, and Getty says the images have generated 800 million page views so far. The goal of its new app is largely drive the adoption of more embeddable images. Images shared from the app have the same code as the embedded versions, which allows Getty to track its photos across the Web—something it couldn’t do when people simply lifted Getty images from online publications and reposted them on Facebook or Twitter.

The consumer strategy is meant to spark a drastic increase in Getty’s customer base. When the company was founded in 1995, it had about 30,000 paying customers picking through an inventory of about 70,000 images. Today, 1.3 million customers have access to Getty’s archive of 100 million images, and the number of people interested in its photographs is likely much larger.

But each time Getty has reached for a wider market, it has had to lower its prices. This happened around the turn of the century, when it began focusing on editorial uses, then again when it moved into inexpensive stock photography. It’s a continual process that continues to this day: Earlier this week Getty announced a round of price reductions on its line of iStock images.

The falling price of photos has caused tension between Getty and the photographers who rely on it to license their work. But for many photographers, free is way scarier than cheap. Getty claims it hasn’t had significant resistance from photographers to the free embed program, although there was certainly some shock in the photographic community when it was first announced. “The person who owns the copyright—the contributor, the one whose creativity made the image—is not getting anything from this. Getty is,” Michael Grecco, chairman of the advocacy committee for American Photographic Artists, told me the week the program was announced.

Getty Images Stream iPad app
Courtesy Getty Images

It is true that Getty has positioned itself to benefit by standing between photographers and their audiences, much in the same way that such Silicon Valley companies as Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done. But it’s not yet clear that Getty will actually find a way to get a lot from this. Craig Peters, a senior vice president at the company, says it already uses information about what images are being shared to determine assignments. It also looks for inspiration by monitoring what people are searching for on its website.

Getty could theoretically include advertisements in the embeds, in the way that YouTube runs preroll ads, but that strays pretty far from Getty’s area of expertise. There are other ways for Getty to turn its collection into revenue, but Peters says that it’s not rushing to find a new business quite yet. “If we weren’t Getty Images, and we were a startup in the Bay Area, and we were driving gobs and gobs of engagement,” he says, “no one would ask about the business model.”