Two days ago, Google rather quietly removed a very popular feature from its search functionality. As part of a legal settlement with the powerful Getty Images stock photography agency, the search behemoth has agreed to remove the “view images” button that appeared whenever a search result included images. Clicking on this button would open the image directly in the user’s browser, allowing them to bypass a visit to the website containing the matched image. Now that word is getting out about this popular feature being removed, the Internet is up in arms, with thousands crying foul and lambasting both companies for this decision. In today’s post, I focus instead on what this change means for photographers and other intellectual property owners. And guess what? It’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
The Web is a mixed bag for photographers. On the one hand, the Web offers us an instantaneous and inexpensive way for our work to be seen by potentially billions of people around the world. For professional photographers, the technology allows us to deliver work to clients, share our art, and make new sales with relatively little cost or effort. On the other hand, the Web also makes it incredibly easy for people to steal our work. I recently conducted a reverse image search on one of my most popular (and valuable) images, the multiple international-award-winning shot of an alligator with its reflection in the waters of a Louisiana bayou, and found that it currently lives in more than 300 places around the world on the Internet. A few dozen of those sites are authorized to use my image, such as legitimate news agencies reporting on my having won the awards and certain clients to whom I have licensed the right to use the image, but nearly all of the sites’ publishers are using my work without permission. In other words, they are thieves.
For photographers, our images represent countless hours of hard work, the application of our talent accrued over a lifetime, considerable financial investment in gear and travel, and for professionals, our livelihood. The fact that it is convenient and easy to steal our work does not make it ethical or legal to do so. By removing a search results feature that made theft extremely easy, Google has taken a serious step toward protecting intellectual property rights.
Of course it is still quite easy to grab images off the Web if you have a mind to. You can click on the “visit page” button in the Google search results, find the image on the website, and right-click on it to save it on your device. Photographers can make that process a bit harder by adding right-click protection to remind would-be thieves that the image is copyrighted, but there are plenty of ways to get around this protection.
The recent move by Google therefore won’t end the problem of digital image theft overnight, but it’s a good step in the right direction. Image sharing and legitimate use is preserved, while making things just a tad harder for those who knowingly or unknowingly want to steal other people’s images off the Web.
Google has simultaneously ended the “Search By Image” button that popped up when a user opened an image. I have mixed feelings about this decision, also a result of the settlement with Getty Images. While this feature could be used by thieves who want to find un-watermarked copies of photos somewhere on the Web, it’s also very useful for photographers who need to know where our images are appearing around the world. Fortunately, you can still use this feature simply by dragging the image into the search bar at the top of your browser’s screen.
I hope this post from a working photographer’s perspective will help defuse some of the animus hurled against Google from angry Internet users. Removing the “View Images” button doesn’t solve all intellectual property theft in one simple move, but it is a reasonable step toward the goal of protecting image copyrights, and that’s a good thing for us photographers and, ultimately, for all users of images. Because if photographers can’t make a living selling our work, very soon there won’t be any pro-quality images out there.
Do you agree with my viewpoint? Or do you have a differing opinion? Please share your comments here!
Want to read my earlier post about what to do if your images are stolen? Find it here: What to do if your images are stolen.