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Who Owns that Picture?

Digital technology has vastly expanded the supply and the market for stock image providers like Getty Images, but it has also complicated the task of controlling their intellectual property. Jonathan Klein, Getty’s cofounder and CEO, talks about its business model and the “existential threat” posed by online image search.


When Getty Images was founded in 1995, the stock photo business was, CEO Jonathan Klein says, “a hidden gem”—a sleepy industry that operated much as it had for decades, licensing an archive of images, delivered as prints, to the magazine and advertising industries.

Klein, who founded the company with Mark Getty, a banker and the grandson of oil magnate J. Paul Getty, saw opportunities for expansion—through consolidation, through a professionalization of the photo acquisition process, and through the nascent internet. “We saw that technology was going to fundamentally change firstly how the imagery was distributed,” he says, “and then later on, when the cameras got good enough, how the imagery was captured.”

Those predictions, of course, came to pass, and technology continues to evolve, presenting ongoing strategic challenges. The proliferation of digital photography, and eventually, smartphones equipped with cameras, has unleashed a flood of images, of all levels of quality. The growth of user-driven content—blogs, social media, websites for individuals and businesses of all sizes—means a potentially huge market for photos.

But like the music and the movie industries, the arrival of digital media has meant for image providers a struggle to define and control its intellectual property. Reusing a copyrighted photo is as simple as a right-click. Studies have suggested that widespread downloading of pirated music has created a social norm: even if you know it’s illegal, it doesn’t seem wrong. No similar literature exists on the reuse of copyrighted photos, because for most people, the ownership of images isn’t even a consideration.

“Our business depends on copyright and a respect for intellectual property,” Klein says. “People on the web have been habituated into thinking that intellectual property is free.”

Part of Getty’s task is to help internet users understand that photos belong to someone. One way to do that, counterintuitively, is to give them away. In March 2014, the company announced that it would allow noncommercial websites and social media users to embed images for free, using a tool that automatically adds a credit and a link back to Getty.

In the meantime, the company is pursuing other means of protecting its copyrights. “Digital, paradoxically, has made it easier to track unauthorized use of intellectual property,” Klein says. In 2011, Getty purchased the Israeli firm PicScout, which has developed technology to find copyrighted photos on the internet—even if they are altered or have type on top of them.

But, Klein adds, “the existential threat to our industry is big search.” Search engines like Google and Bing, he points out, have tools designed to help users search for images and to download them at a large size. “There’s no attribution of who it belongs to. There’s no warning that the picture belongs to someone else.” In September 2014, the company sued Microsoft over a tool that allowed users to automatically embed images from a Bing search on their web sites.

Over the last 15 years, Klein notes, as big internet companies like Apple and Google have begun to sell music, movies, and books, they have developed an appreciation for the importance of protecting intellectual property in those areas. “We’re working very hard to get similar standards for pictures that the search engines have agreed to with other areas,” he says.

Cofounder and CEO, Getty Images