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New Working Paper – Getty Images: copyright hawk or corporate appropriator?

Posted on    by Bartolomeo Meletti
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New Working Paper – Getty Images: copyright hawk or corporate appropriator?

By 12 February 2024No Comments

CREATe presents the first working paper in the 2024 series – ‘Getty Images: copyright hawk or corporate appropriator?’ by Professor Richard Misek (University of Bergen).

Richard Misek opens the 2024 series of CREATe working papers with an edited transcript of his public lecture ‘Getty Images: copyright hawk or corporate appropriator?’, delivered at the Kelvin Hall on 20th November 2023. Using his film A History of the World According to Getty Images as a foundation, the paper explores the tension between asserting one own’s copyright and appropriating other people’s. More specifically, it investigates how this dual pull plays out in the activities of Getty Images. After a short introduction on how the author got interested in ‘the largest commercial archive in the world’ (Getty’s own words), the paper illustrates three main processes that allowed Getty to reach market dominance:

  1. Takeovers: in the first ten years after its establishment in 1995, Getty built up its store of intellectual property by taking over several competing still and moving images archives, becoming a meta-archive (an archive of archives).
  2. Litigation: the company aggressively protects its IP through litigation, or threat of litigation, such as the antitrust lawsuit against Google which led to the removal of the ‘View Image’ button from Google Images in 2018.
  3. Platformisation: Getty has the largest and most efficient platform in the image economy, serving three main markets which value speed and ease of access over cost: media, creative professionals and corporate. In turn, being the default supplier for these sectors gives Getty power over its own suppliers, i.e. any creator who wants to reach those markets.

The second part of the paper focusses on legal and ethical aspects of Getty’s practices of appropriation. Richard’s work shows that Getty ‘appropriates’ and exploits public domain materials as well as many potential orphan works, meaning works whose actual copyright owner is either unknown or can’t be traced. This seems to indicate an apparently contradictory attitude towards copyright: while Getty aggressively protects its own intellectual property (or what they claim to be their own IP), they embrace the ambiguity of copyright law to reuse and exploit other people’s work.

The paper concludes by connecting the discussion on Getty’s attitude towards copyright and appropriation to a current legal dispute whose outcome is likely to play an important role in the use of images for AI training: Getty Images vs Stability AI.

Richard’s paper offers a fresh perspective on important regulatory questions at the intersection of creativity, markets and technology, the three domains of CREATe’s research in our new role as the Centre for Regulation of the Creative Economy.

Click on image to download

Getty Images: copyright hawk or corporate appropriator?

Richard Misek

CREATe Working Paper 2024/1


This working paper explores the dual pull, often felt at both organisational and individual levels, towards simultaneously asserting one’s own intellectual property and appropriating other people’s. It does so with specific reference to Getty Images, the largest commercial archive in the world. The paper begins by scrutinizing how Getty Images amassed and safeguards its vast image repository, highlighting three elements that have underpinned its rapid growth: takeovers, litigation, and platformisation.

The paper’s focus then shifts to the role of appropriation in the company’s historical and current activities, and in particular to how the company differs from public archives in how it approaches content with ambiguous copyright. The paper concludes by reflecting on the current legal dispute between Getty Images and Stability AI, and highlighting the contradictory stance held by Getty Images towards the emergence of generative AI.

Full paper can be downloaded here.