The photography industry has entered Bizarro World.

Marking a radical shift in its strategy, Getty Images Inc. has decided to make millions of photos freely available for noncommercial use. The notoriously protective stock-photo company this week launched an embed tool that allows users to share Getty-owned images on other platforms. With the exception of a few collections, the new tool is available for some 35 million images, comprising the vast majority of Getty’s database. It marks the first time in Getty’s 19-year history that it has allowed its images to be used for free.  

The privately held Seattle-based company says it wants to lead the way in “creating a more visual world,” but the move may also be a tacit admission that the aggressive copyright-enforcement tactics that have earned it a reputation as a saber-rattling bully are a losing battle. Over the last several years, Getty has fired off untold thousands of “settlement demand letters” to website owners and other content creators it believes are using its images without permission. Rather than request a mere cease and desist, the ominous letters demand settlement amounts ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. The approach has attracted a groundswell of criticism from some copyright lawyers who accuse Getty of using the threat of litigation to shake down alleged infringers for more money than the images are actually worth.

As pervasive as Getty’s demand letters have become, it is generally known in webmaster circles that the company rarely follows through with actual litigation. That makes the timing of its new tool much more curious, as it comes just a few months after the Getty filed a series of boilerplate federal lawsuits against alleged infringers. At the time, a Getty spokesperson told International Business Times that the lawsuits, in part, were meant to “send the message that we will take legal action when someone uses our content and is not willing to pay a license fee.”

In announcing its new embed feature, Getty gave no indication that it plans to abandon its enforcement efforts, and since the tool doesn’t apply to images used commercially, Getty will certainly still have to patrol the Web for violations. But at minimum, the embed function marks a willingness to acknowledge the changing realities of ownership, copyright and compensation in a digitally driven age when such concepts often seem to be at irreconcilable odds.       

In an interview with CNET Australia, Getty’s Craig Peters, a VP of business development, said the company is simply trying to offer a legal alternative to behavior that is already taking place (a “right-click and take” culture, as he put it). The ultimate goal, he said, is to find a way to monetize the widespread sharing of Getty’s images throughout the Internet, perhaps through advertising or the selling of data. As an example, he cites YouTube’s embed function -- long a key feature of that site -- which makes sharing videos as easy as copying and pasting a small piece of HTML code.

Getty’s feature is similar, using an embed code with iFrame integration that it says works seamlessly on major platforms such as WordPress and Twitter. Embedded images will include proper attribution and will link back to the Getty Images website when clicked.

Following in the footsteps of Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR), Getty Images plans to showcase the new capability at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, next week. A tutorial of the tool is already available on its website.

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