For most of the world, it has absolutely no interest. For the few that still rely on licensing photos to make a living, it’s a big deal. Google image search now features a “where to license” badge under some of the images it returns after a query.

The license badge from Google Image search

The license badge from Google Image search

It’s a big deal because, since the rise and dominance of Google as the primary search engine, a very significant amount of people have used it to find images to use. While most professional image buyers continued to go directly to stock photo agencies, everyone else went to Google Images. And without any clear differentiation between licensable images and non-licensable images, the search engine threw the industry into consternation.

A world of chaos

Untrained users would assume- and still do- that because you can find an image for free on Google images, you can also use it for free. While it is true for some photos, those in the public domain, it is not for the majority of them. In fact, by default, all images need the permission of its right holder before being used. Those who don’t are an exception.

Until now, Google being an internet company raised in the spirit of “all content should be free for all,” it did not have an advantage in educating its users. Until recently.

Ironically, Google is a top referrer of new image buyers to the stock photo industry and has been for a while.  26.79% of all internet searches are via Google Image. Even imperfectly, some of that traffic eventually finds its way to stock photo agencies making it an indispensable marketing tool.  Unlike text, there is no real SEO that stock photo agencies can apply to influence the rankings, besides correctly entering the “alt” field. Thus stock images of photo agencies are in direct competition with the same photos published on blogs or elsewhere. And more than often loose. Try putting ‘business handshakes” in a Google image search and see who comes up first. 


screenshot of a business handshake search on google image

Not a lot of stock photo agencies in the first result page of a “business handshakes” search

This is because the vast majority of image searches on Google are not to find an image to use but to see how something looks like. Thus Google does not prioritize sellers of images but rather sites which are the most popular containing those images. Still, the microstock industry first and the rest later realized that this was an untapped gold mine for new image buyers. And for a while, it worked very well. Until all the stock agencies did the same and cannibalized each other’s effort.

Realizing that the word ‘free’ was very often added to the search “stock photo” prompted many to make affiliate deals with existing free photo sites or built their own. While no numbers are public, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that those are close to being the number one referrers.

But back to Google. What changed?

 First, they had a very annoying and persistent Getty Images beating at their door, potential lawsuits at hand, relentlessly telling them that their photo/video copyright policies were inadequate. In a landmark settlement reversing their dangerously too large preview thumbnails, Getty also got Google to display the copyright field in the search result if it and when it was populated. 

Realizing that this did not impair in any way the search experience of its users while enhancing the quality of the result, Google pursued this initiative by having further conversations with the IPTC and CEPIC in 2017. After all, an image with a clearly defined copyrighted source is most certainly better than one without ( since only professionals would bother to enter the information).

It is also parallel to when the European Union decided to increase its actions against the US internet giant, fining them for unfair competition, blaming them for the failure of the news media online, accusing them of helping the spread of fakes and unauthorized copies, and of profiting from others’ creative content ( among many other things..). It was also when the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market was initiated.  Article 17 of the now voted directive clearly states that aggregators and social media platforms need to share revenue with creators. Thus the need to identify copyright holders.

Google needs to show some goodwill.

What we see today is the partial effect: In the result page, a badge displaying where an image is available for license. It will only appear if the image has been appropriately labeled by the distributing licensor. Not sure what happens if that image has multiple licensors, which is mostly the case these days. Probably whoever comes first.

Google gets valuable information on the properties of the pool of licensable images. It can, for example, see what images sell the most often, industry-wide. Using visual AI, analyze what type of image sells best, why, when, and to whom. But most of all, it will become the first and only centralized image copyright registry. Something it could sell to companies like Twitter, Facebook, and many others that need to identify right holders. ( see article 17).

Knowing that the vast majority of images are not licensed images, the badge will not appear very often. And if and when it does, it is also doubtful that most people would know what to do with it. However, it is a giant step compared to nothing at all.

It will be to the vanishing stock photo industry to unite and propagate the message on how to use this feature and how to license images properly. If history tells us anything, it is not something they are capable of doing.


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