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Last week, Google updated their Google Image Search tool to make it easier for searchers to find licensable images. This move expands the feature beyond Creative Commons-licensed images and now adds commercially licensed images, including those from Getty Images, Shutterstock and more.

The move represents the latest in a long series of changes with Google Image Search that has aimed to make it more palatable to photographers and artists. In 2009, Google added Creative Commons to Google Image Search, enabling users to find open-licensed images to use. In 2013 Google added attribution information to Google Image Search.

Five years later, the company then completely overhauled Google Image Search to remove the “View Image” button and make copyright notices more prominent. Later that same year, Google added image credits to the results by pulling information from the image’s metadata.

The latest move takes that use of the metadata to the next step. Google Image Search now adds a “Licensable” flag to images known to be available for commercial license and directs people to where they can obtain the rights to use the image.

To understand how this works and why this may be an important step, we need to first take a deep dive into what has changed.

How it Works

According to Google, the big change is that images in Google Image Search will display a “Licensable” flag if they are available for such licensing. This appears as a small badge that pops up over the image when the user hovers over it.

Google Makes it Easier to Find Licensable Images Image
Notice the flag on all three images, but expanded in the middle.

Google obtains this information one of two ways: Either through structured data on the page itself or the image’s International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) metadata. Once Google sees either kind of metadata about the image and that the metadata includes licensing information, it will add the badge to the image as well as display information on how to obtain a license on the search results.

That information includes both the site on which you can get the image as well as details about the license itself.

Google Makes it Easier to Find Licensable Images Image

However, those that just do a regular Google Image Search are likely to find that very few images are flagged as licensable at this time. To counter this, Google has added the option under “Tools” to search solely for licensable images, ensuring that every image shown is one that’s available for use.

Google Makes it Easier to Find Licensable Images Image

Overall, it’s a straightforward idea. Google detects license information in image metadata and then allows users to search for available images from across the internet. This has the potential to turn Google into something of a meta stock photography search engine, making it easy to find licensable images across many providers.

However, there are some extremely important limitations that need to be discussed before photographers and artists can celebrate.

Some Big Limitations

As interesting as the move is, it comes with some pretty serious limitations and concerns.

The biggest is just how few images are marked as “Licensable” even though they likely are available for licensing. A search for a term like “handshake” (which I used above) shows countless images that are clearly stock photos but none have the “Licensable” flag.

If you want to find images available for license, you need to use the setting to only show such results. However, this setting is not enabled by default and few are likely to use. Those that do use it were likely already looking for licensable images, meaning this system isn’t likely to dissuade anyone that might be using Google Image Search inappropriately.

The reason so few images have the flag is because Google is hinging the process on metadata either on the site or in the image itself. However, that metadata is very fragile. Though stock photography sites can easily include such metadata both in their images and on their pages, those that license the images likely won’t.

Not only are licensees unlikely to include the metadata in their pages, the IPTC metadata is often stripped out when preparing an image for the Web. This is especially true when images are compressed for faster loading and often happens without the user knowing that it’s taking place.

Because of this, it’s likely that the percentage of images marked as licensable will remain extremely small. Couple this with the fact that the actual license information, much like the copyright warning on non-licensable images, is very small and easy to miss (see above image).

Even if a random user does manage to find a licensable image, they may well miss the links to the actual license.

In the end, this won’t do much to encourage image licensing among those that are not actively looking to do so, but it does provide a new way for those seeking to license images to search across multiple sites and platforms.

Bottom Line

This move is not as big of a leap as the ones Google took in 2018 and comes 11 years after Google introduced Creative Commons Licensing to Google Image Search. While this is certainly a good step, it is both extremely small and significantly late.

Google Image search is the most common way people find images online. Unfortunately for photographers and artists, this includes those that wind up infringing the copyright on the images they find.

Google has long acknowledged this problem but has a history of doing just the bare minimum to address it. Sadly, that bare minimum often comes far too late. Though adding small, barely noticeable licensing information to photos tagged for reuse is a good step, there’s clearly much more that Google can be doing here.

So, while this is a positive step, it’s still not enough to turn the actual tide. Sadly, if history is any indicator, we will have to wait several more years for the next, small step to improve things.

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