Entire LIFE library now freely available

It had to happen.

The photo archive of LIFE is now available in medium resolution for free for all. Powered by the friendly folks, who can not do evil – Google, and TimeWarner! According to the press release, the entire archive of 10+ million images will be released to the public in the near future; right now there are 2 million photos available. 97% of the images have not been published before. Of course, everyone at TimeWarner and Google is quite excited about this.

From a photography perspective, I am thrilled, too. I wrote an article this summer that revealed my admiration for LIFE pictures since I was a kid. LIFE photographers probably influenced me more than anyone else. And the LIFE archive is certainly one of the most amazing archives of all time. Just do a simple Google search to see pictures from your favorite photographers. Great!

But wait – something is wrong. At the time of writing, a search for Alfred Eisenstaedt reveals just 200 photos (he must have shot 10,000s of images for LIFE). A search for Kennedy returns 200 photos. Hollywood – 200 photos. What’s going on? Are all searches limited to 200 photos? Why? And then some searches do not have any results at all, e.g. Picasso (this was corrected four hours after this article was posted). Huh?

Also, TimeWarner and Google are not exactly known as the Do-Good’ers they try to suggest they are. Why are they giving away millions of photos to the general public, when they are still licencing the archive through their cooperation with Getty Images? Sure, they sell poster prints from the Google pages, starting at $79.99. This will bring in some money. But still I wonder whether there is more to the story?

The lack of licence terms on all the pages of the LIFE archive makes me feel slightly uneasy. The main archive page does not contain any licence terms, and no terms of use either. The individual photo pages mention just “© Time Inc.” but no other licence terms. This is fully sufficient to clarify the licence situation. But I guess that now zillions of blogs will hotlink and re-publish these images from the LIFE archive.

And no, not even the official help page does mention copyrights and terms of use at all. It says what you may do with the photos, though:

Q.: What can I do with the images I find from the LIFE photo archive?
A.: You can browse and view the images you find, rate them, and see detailed information about the photographs. There is also a link to buy image merchandise provided by LIFE.

I interpret this as:

You may not use the photographs for anything else than to browse and view them, to rate them, to see detailed information about them, and to buy image merchandise provided by LIFE.

Which is not much.

Soooo, if you are a photographer who is also a Blogger, here is my wake-up call for you: do not use any of the images, unless you want to receive some mail from TimeWarner, and their lawyers. (I think they expect commercial licencing still to be done through GettyImages, so anyone using images from the archive commercially without proper licence is facing serious trouble.)

And what does all this mean for the photo business? Well, the sudden addition of 10+ million excellent photos to the Internet means (to me) that the value of photography has been once more reduced significantly. The availability of all these outstanding photos is the silent admission that high-end photography is now a commodity. Sure, end-users will cheer for all the free images. TimeWarner cheer as well as they can monetize their back catalog better now. But photo archives that focus on historical photos will cry. Their ability to monetize their archives has been reduced significantly.

It had to happen.

One Response to “Entire LIFE library now freely available”

  1. Anastasia says:

    Thank you for spelling out so clearly what we can and cannot do with the LIFE images. I’ve been Googling around and, most ironically, couldn’t find anything conclusive within easy reach!