Contributors to iStockphoto are planning to pull their portfolios from the microstock site following the discovery of a new distribution agreement with Google. Users of Google Drive, the search company’s cloud-based productivity app, can now insert stock photos drawn from Getty’s inventories into their Google documents without paying a license fee.
The images aren’t promoted, nor are they obvious but they are available. Users of Google Drive must first press “Create” then choose one of the productivity apps, such as the text editor, Document, or the slideshow creator, Presentation. If they then choose Insert > Image from the menu, the last option allows them to “Search” the Web for pictures. They can look on Google, browse a collection supplied by Life, or choose “Stock Images” to bring up pageloads of commercial photographs. Selecting an image pastes it directly into the open document.
At no point are users asked for a fee, and the images arrive uncredited and stripped of EXIF data.
According to Sean Locke, a top microstock photographer and one of the first to discover the program, the 5,000 stock images available on Google Drive appear to come largely from Getty’s Vetty and Agency collections which are drawn up from iStockphoto to Getty Images. Some photos though have been reported to come from Getty’s Flickr collection and others have from a range of collections owned by Getty. iStockPhoto has said that around 700 of the photos in the collection came from a group of 490 contributors to the microstock site.
$185 on Getty, Free on Google
Google is believed to have licensed the collection through Getty’s Premium Access program, paying between $60 and $100 for each photo. That rate would net the photographer a flat fee of around $12 for an image that can be used multiple times by Google Drive’s 10 million-plus users. That’s a much lower price than many of the photographers would have earned from a single sale. This image of baubles in the shape of a Christmas tree decoration, created by Martin Poole and drawn from Photodisc, for example, can be used on Google Drive for free. On Getty Images, a royalty-free license for the same picture at a similar size is offered for $185. Locke has found six of his photos on Google Drive so far.
The search results come with a note from Google that all of the images are “labeled for commercial reuse with modification.” A link takes users to a reminder that “usage rights come into play if you’re looking for content that you can take and use above and beyond fair use.” Nowhere, though, are the usage rights for the images spelled out. Users aren’t told how they can use the images, where they can display them or for how long they can make use of them, let alone who created them. As Sean Locke notes, there is nothing to prevent a Google Drive user from saving the images, free of watermarks, onto their hard drives and using them in any way they wished.
“With these image available for full commercial use for free, why pay for a license?” he asks.
Not surprisingly, the availability of the images on Google Drive has caused some consternation among iStockphoto’s contributors. Using the site’s forum, contributors questioned whether the images were being offered for free without permission and why Getty wasn’t protecting their property.
The initial response, posted by a “mr_erin” and later backed up by Claudia Micare who manages Contributor Relations at Getty Images, was to apologize for the lack of information but confirmed that Google did pay for the images. A clarification published on the iStockphoto forum said that the company had met with Google to “to refine the implementation which we believe will address some of the concerns raised over the past several days–including copyright ownership.” The site also explained that:
“Google has a bespoke EULA to allow these images to be used by Google users through the Google Drive platform. Users of this platform are granted rights to place this imagery in content created using Google Docs, Google Sites, and Google Presentations and these end uses can be for commercial purposes; however, users are not granted rights to use this imagery outside of Google Drive created content and Google users have no rights to redistribute image files outside of the context in which they’re used.”
We have asked Getty to explain those limitations in more detail but hadn’t received a reply by time of publication. If the company does reply, we’ll add it to this post.
Photographers, however, remain angry at what they see as Getty’s appropriation of their copyrights and the devaluation of their images. A thread running on Microstock Group, a forum for microstock photographers, is calling for D-Day, or Deactivation Day, to take place on February 2, Groundhog Day. Photographers taking part in the initiative have promised to remove their images from the site on that day. Photographer Lisa F. Young, for example, has promised to deactivate 500 files and may remove as many as 1,000.
“It is really important to take a stand to let the agencies (in this case, Getty the biggest in the world) know they cannot bully us and violate our copyrights with impunity,” she told us. “This is an important issue to protect copyrights for all photographers, as well as other artists.”
While it’s not clear exactly how many images will be removed from the site in protest at the Google agreement, the latest projected total puts the figure at over 20,000.
Other photographers, though, are more skeptical. Yuri Hahhalev, doubted that deactivation would help unless it affected at least 10 percent of iStockphoto’s files, and even Sean Locke told us that he plans to keep working with Getty “as long as we can discuss and resolve this issue.”
That may be unlikely. This isn’t the first time that iStockphoto images have been distributed through a tech company. In 2007, iStockphoto sold extended licenses to Microsoft that let Office.com users download and use stock images. Then too, usage rights prohibited distributing copies of the content outside of projects and documents created with the Web app. And yet, some of the images were tagged with a “public domain” copyright status.
A number of photographers may pull their images from iStockphoto on February 2 but whether the boycott will move Getty remains to be seen.