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Can Federal Agencies Use Getty Images’ Free Share Tool?

Earlier this month, stock photo giant Getty Images launched an embedded photo viewer, that permits sharing millions of its’ copyrighted images for free. The news generated headlines and questions about whether it’s okay for government content producers to use the tool.

From Getty’s perspective, the answer is yes. The company’s main restriction is that the images be used for editorial, non-commercial purposes and government content meets this criteria.

But from our perspective, at the State Department Bureau of International Information Programs, the tool is unsuitable for official .gov blogs and websites because Getty reserves the right to include advertising.

Social media managers, on the other hand, may be able to use the free embed tool on Facebook, Twitter and similar third-party channels, pending negotiations of a Terms of Service agreement. But even then, they should consider some practical limitations. The low-resolution display is fixed at 594 x 465 pixels and is branded with the photographer credit and Getty Images logo. These cannot be altered. Not all of Getty’s images are available for embedding. A filtered search for Getty images with the embedded viewer option is available.

Considering the large number of image resources with full rights that federal agencies can tap, we recommend our social media managers consider Getty’s embedded viewer as an alternative rather than as a primary image source.

Getty’s announcement underscores the complex, shifting picture of image acquisitions, rights and usage. The protection of intellectual property rights is a core value that the Department of State stresses in its international engagement.

For those new to the discussion, here are some thoughts about image rights to assist the search for dynamic photographs to enhance digital content presented on government digital platforms.

(Disclaimer: This is intended as general background information only–Always consult agency guidance!)

Can I Freely Use a Photo I Find on the Internet?

Most images are copyrighted, but some are in public domain. Generally speaking, you need permission from the owner of a photograph to use it.

  • Copyright law in the U.S. automatically makes the photographer the owner of the image.
  • Companies that manage large photo collections like AP, AFP, Getty, Corbis, Magnum etc., manage the rights and terms of use for all the images they distribute.
  • Most U.S. government created works are in the public domain under U.S. law. If you are in the United States, you don’t need permission to use photographs that the federal government owns, including:
    • Photos taken by government staff or, under certain circumstances, work-for-hire photographers.
    • Photos donated by owners to federal archives and libraries with no usage restrictions.
    • Old photos with expired, un-renewed copyrights. (For practical purposes though, assume unattributed images you find on the Internet are protected by copyright.)

What Is an Efficient Strategy to Find Photos I Can Use?

One sure way to acquire photos with appropriate rights is to get them from primary, trusted sources.

  • Avoid unfiltered Google image searches due to time-consuming research that may be needed to authenticate copyright status and obtain permissions.
  • Use Google’s image search filter “by usage rights”. If you choose an image “labeled for reuse” still check who did the labeling to confirm the rights status.
  • Connect to primary image sources through your agency. Federal agencies including the Department of State often maintain license agreements with copyrighted news and stock image libraries. Terms of use vary, but this is a great way to quickly find appropriate images with verified caption/cutline/credit information and usage rules.
  • Tap into online photo collections with public domain photographs such as:

Many agencies curate and feature some of their best images in Flickr streams, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and other social media channels.

How Else Might I Get Permission to Use Copyrighted Photographs?

  • Look in Creative Commons. More and more photographers are sharing their own copyrighted images online and allowing reuse under terms they set out in “creative commons” license agreements. Since creative commons licenses don’t guarantee rights status, it remains best practice to rely on primary, trusted sources.
  • License individual images. Contact the rights owner with a full description of the images and how, where and for how long you wish to distribute them.
  • Fair Use. Content producers sometimes use copyrighted photographs without permission by claiming a legal defense known as “fair use.” Seek clearance at your agency before using copyrighted images based on fair use doctrine.

How Do I Ensure Proper Future Use of Photos I Post?

The best strategy is to consistently take the time to properly tag, caption and credit photographs. This will not only clearly identify what is public domain and what is copyrighted, but also make it easier for future researchers to find your best photographs.

Judith Snyderman is a stock image specialist and contractor for government agencies.

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