Getty Images makes its pictures available for free -- but what’s the real price?

You can't argue with free can you? The absence of a price tag makes just about anything seem more attractive, and the latest company to join the freebie party is none other than Getty Images, that bastion of photos whose pictures you cannot fail to have seen in newspapers, magazines and on websites. Previously only available to those willing to cough up the cash, Getty Images' new Embed Images tool can now be used by any to... well... embed images into web pages and blog posts. And there are literally millions to choose from.

Sounds great, right? You must have found yourself struggling to find a royalty free image to use in a blog post, ultimately settling for working with something less than ideal -- after all, you wouldn’t just "borrow" an image from another site, would you? Now you can simply head over to the Getty Images site and, assuming you're not going to use pictures for commercial purposes, start browsing for and using whatever photos take your fancy. Hoorary!

Or maybe not.

Getty Images may be free, but you're not able to just download images and use them however you want. Rather than downloading images, you are required to embed them using code supplied by Getty Images. This might not seem like an issue -- it's a small price to pay for 35 million free images -- but consider this. Who knows what happens in a year's time? That image you have embedded on the front page of your website could just vanish. It's unlikely that Getty Images itself will disappear any time soon, but the same cannot be said for individual images.

Depending on how Getty's image database is set up, there is also the possibility that an image could be replaced by something completely different. We are, of course, talking hypothetically, but who's to say that the lovely landscape scene you spent forever choosing won't turn into a shot of a lingerie-clad lady? But the fact that the delivery of images is reliant on embedding code opens up somewhat more sinister possibilities. Ads.

The very fact that code is used to embed images means that it would be easy to deliver additional content. A Getty Images overlay or watermark is not entirely unexpected, but there would be nothing to stop other overlays being added, including advertisements. The embed code for images is difficult to interpret. A photo of a monkey on the phone has the address src="//embed.gettyimages.com/embed/169937758?et=F12UYuHMs06DZOEVeIkKmg&sig=hSTP-g5TRomSqtiDuQch2nT78DjmX0TlFADxCxx9vYg=". The image reference number is 169937758, and there's no way of knowing what the additional code is used for.

The point is, images are entirely managed server-side, meaning that the person using them gives up control. Is this a price you're willing to pay?

The change in business model could also have implications for photographers. Image providers who once received a cut of income whenever their images were used now find that control has been wrestled from them as well. This in turn could mean that photographers are less willing to supply Getty Images with their work, which could ultimately mean that quality drops. Is that a price anyone should be happy with?

Image Credit: AntonSokolov / Shutterstock

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