Today, or yesterday, Google made a little change to its image search engine that could have great consequences. Apparently responding to a blog post by Lessing – the leading advocate for a copyright free world- who was complaining that Bing Images search offered better functionality, Google decided to move the license search filter to the front end of a search.

If you don’t know, here is how it works. You perform a search on Google Image. On the top bar, under “more tools’ you now have a drop down menu letting you filter what you want to see.

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The options are :

  • not filtered by license” : all images are visible

  • labeled for reuse”: you are free to use or share the image

  • labeled for commercial reuse” : free to use and share, even commercially

  • labeled for reuse with modification”: Free to use, share and modify

  • labeled for commercial reuse with modification” free to use, share and modify, even commercially

What this drop menu allows you to do, in other word, is to only see photographs that are, according to Google, free to use ( with variations).

This is a big deal for the pro photo licensing world for many reasons. Here is why.

  • Google image search is the number one destination for people looking for photographs. It is the first place almost everyone goes to find photography, especially those who do not know about photo licensing companies. This filter allows them to ignore all of the professional licensing options and just see the ‘free” images. This is devastating for companies who spend a lot of time, and money, to make sure their images appear on top of a google image search. Companies like Shutterstock, and most of the micro stock companies that have build their growth of new customers by converting them via image SEO will suffer.
  • The filters do no work perfectly. As on this example below, there are always a residue of images that are not obviously free who still appear after the filter has been applied. Most probably because the image has be copied and posted on a site like Flickr with a CC license. By still displaying it in a filtered search, does Google become liable in case of copyright infringement ? probably not as Google is full of disclaimers about copyright. But it still gives a very strong- and wrong- impression.

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  • The filter names are also very confusing and not standard. It doesn’t use Creative Common language, nor does it use pro licensing wording. It’s a whole new set of terms that sets more confusion in the marketplace. Furthermore by using the term “labeled”, it implies that the information has been applied willingly by its owner. We all know that this is not often the case.
  • It promotes free photography over any other of its attribute.There is no filters for professional photography only, nor is there one for “great images”, or “verticals only” or any of the hundreds of other attributes of an image. Why not a “labeled as requires a license” filter ? Simple: Google does not want to promote or help any commercial businesses with its search engine, especially if they do not receive a cut of the revenue generated. In the mean time, it just hides it.

What are the possible long term effect of such filters ? If users can set their default search results already filtered then pretty soon, none of the professional images will ever appear on a Google Image search result. Thus no one, besides pictures professionals, will ever know that those images exist, let along are available for purchasing. The impact could be dramatic for some. The proponents of a copyright free world have scored a big gain with this.

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