In the movie “The Princess Bride” the hero, played by Cary Elwes, is tortured to death. Except it turns out he’s only “mostly” dead, and he can be revived. Likewise, Getty Images now are “mostly” free.
Some background. Contrary to what many people believe, photos, drawings, and images are protected by copyright law, and you may not use them without the permission of the owner (usually the photographer or artist). It doesn’t matter whether your site charges a fee, whether you knew the image was subject to copyright, whether you gave attribution to the owner, or whether you have a disclaimer on your site. If it’s not yours, you can’t use it without permission. Is this rule universally ignored on the Internet? Yes, of course. But that won’t help if you get sued.
Now back to Getty Images, the largest repository of images in the world. If you go to its site, you’ll see millions of images, all watermarked. If you want Getty to take off the watermark, you pay a fee. But that hasn’t prevented millions of people from altering and using the images on their websites. In response, for years Getty has been systematically finding these images and sending “Settlement Demand Letters.” It has a whole department of people who use bots to track and find the images, and then threaten the web site owners. Most people get scared and pay up.
This may have earned Getty money, but it also was a PR disaster. In response, Getty now says it is dropping the watermark for “most” of its collection, in exchange for an open-embed program that will let users drop in any image they want, as long as the service gets to append a footer at the bottom of the picture with a credit and link to the licensing page. So for many small sites this sounds like “free images.”