Online = free?

 Today Life.com and Getty Images “joined forces to provide you instant access to millions of breathtaking photographs – for free.”  … “When you find a photo you like, you’ll be able to share it, print it, and sometimes even buy it.”

I was a bit surprised at first when I heard of this – after all the Time Life collection has always been highly regarded in the photography world as one of the most important historical collections of the 20th Century.  

I think that it’s great to allow people to enjoy it – to view the images that are all too often inaccessible or hidden away and decaying in dusty filing cabinets. Yet there always has been a certain cache to these photographs – in fact I bought a limited edition Margaret Bourke Wife print a few years ago as a gift for my wife.   Now if anyone can legally print and share these images online for free – I do have to wonder: does this move lessen the inherent value of these images? (Granted making a low resolution print off of a web gallery doesn’t equate the value of a true black and white enlargement – but as we disseminate more an more of our content online (and no longer in “printed” form) I think the distinction between the two will become less relevant.)   However, does making them available “for free” to some in effect “cheapen them.”  Will people intrinsically value the use of an image a bit less now?

Perhaps what I find more interesting in all of this – is how Time and Getty Images are in effect encouraging the use of their images via e-mail, blogs, and social networking sites – without charging for that use (as long as it’s a “non-commercial” use.)   I think it’s very important to really study that – as they are in effect setting a precedent that images shared via those avenues should not lead to any income for photographers or agencies.   It stands to reason that LIFE.com and Getty Images stand to gain something from having thousands of eyeballs driven back to their sites – but haven’t the photographers lost yet another way of making potential income – even if these images were to be licensed for a nominal fee for personal use?  Are blogs and social networking sites in effect being granted a de facto right to publish images for free from hereon out?

This does set off a bit of a red warning light with me if you will – as it reminds me of the time newspapers (The New York Times, Washington Post etc.) established the precedent that they would make all of their content available online for free.   Now that both readers and advertisers are flocking away from printed media and that they are now going online – the newspapers are finding themselves in a bit of catch-22.  Given the precedent, people scoff at the idea of paying an online subscription and they are expecting to continue to get the content for free.  I often wonder why I still subscribe to the printed New York Times that is delivered to my door every morning – when I read 90% of the articles online for free.

What worries me specifically – is that I see blogs continuing to grow in popularity over time.  Does giving them the right to use as many photographs “for free” not give them an inherent advantage over other traditional “commercial” publications?  After all – I could go ahead and put together a very interesting blog post looking back at a historical event that included hundreds of some of the best historical images from the LIFE collection – and do so absolutely free and potentially drive thousands of readers to my blog.   If Newsweek Magazine or Newsweek.com wanted to write the same article – it is unlikely that they would be able to afford licensing the hundreds of images from the LIFE collection – they might be able to afford just a few images to accompany an article.  Which article are people going to be driven to read?    I don’t think readers will ultimately care if they read an interesting article on Time.com or Joe.blogspot.com –  readers will always flock to the best content – regardless of whether it is a “commercial” or non-commercial/personal web publication.  Are blogs in effect being given an unfair advantage over the more traditional “commercial” publications? 

So what happens when these blogs start to run banner ads (or any ads) on their pages?  Are these still considered  “non-commercial”  publications?  I know a blogger who makes more than $20,000 from banner ads each month – he doesn’t charge a subscription fee but does his banner income make him a “commercial publication?”  My facebook pages have ads run on them (put up there by Facebook not me)  - how does that fit into all of this?   It seems that blogs and social networking sites are being given the green light to live in this “grey” area of being non-commercial and that they are being told that they should not expect to have to pay to license any images.  I do think that LIFE.com and Getty Images should clearly specify in their terms of service that if any of the personal sites/ blogs / social networking sites run ANY advertising on their pages or make any profit whatsoever  can no longer be considered “non-commercial.”  If you derive a profit – you are a commercial entity – right?   Well I don’t see such a distinction anywhere in their terms of service.  

It’s tough to answer a lot of these questions definitively – but I hope it starts to bring up quite a few questions that we should all think about.  Life.com and Getty Images – two very large entities in the photo world are already making these decisions for everyone it seems.   We should definitely think about where this is all going in the long run.   Why?   Because as more and more of the content is migrating to the web – there seems to be a growing expectation that it will be available online “for free.”  I think it’s pretty obvious that most of the world’s content is going to move online and away from traditional printed material over time.  And sure, LIFE.com and Getty Images will continue to charge licensing fees to the traditional publications that are moving online.    Does allowing certain “non-commercial” online blogs the right to publish images for free not give them a huge advantage over other traditional “commercial” publishers?  I have to ask: if most of what is being put online is being put up there “for free” – how are the people responsible for producing that content supposed to make a living in the long run?