(CNN) — Online photo archive Getty Images is opening 35 million images to online publishers to use free of charge, acknowledging that many of its pictures are already being copied anyway.
The company will allow "noncommercial" users such as bloggers and tweeters to embed its images using a code similar to what's on sites such as YouTube. The image that appears will include a Getty photo credit and will be linked to the company's website, where viewers can have the opportunity to license the photo.
"This will provide people with a simple and legal way to utilize content that respects creators' rights, including the opportunity to generate licensing revenue," Getty said in a statement announcing the move. The decision "opens one of the largest, deepest and most comprehensive image collections in the world for easy sharing, thereby making the world an even more visual place."
Craig Peters, Getty's senior vice president for business development, said Getty saw its content being copied online, and that "spoke to an opportunity."
"The use of our content in these venues points to really the fact that people are excited to be sharing their ideas, their interests, their passions with our content," he said. By giving users limited access to its imagery, he said, "We're generating new brand awareness in this market."
"I think it's a little premature to talk to a specific business model, but I think we can talk to specific benefits out of the gate," Peters said.
Users will be able up pick from a universe of 35 million images out of the 150 million Getty has available for licensing to a wide variety of organizations, from advertising agencies to news outlets like CNN. Embedded content must be used for "editorial purposes" -- meaning events that are "newsworthy or of public interest" -- and can't be used for advertising, the terms state.
Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said Getty is trying to establish "an alternative for people who otherwise would just copy and paste photos," much as Apple's iTunes created a way to legitimize music sharing.
But the trick for Getty will be to allow those users to access its images without making it so easy that its paying customers start using the embed service themselves, he said.
"Getty makes a lot of money off folks like The New York Times and CNN and professional publishers. They do not in any way want to endanger that," Benton said. "They're trying to walk that thin line to protect that while at the same time enabling that different kind of business."
Peters said that commercial users have more rights to the images than bloggers who embed them. They're able to use the images on multiple platforms, edit them and keep them on their own servers, he said.
"It's a completely different work product than what any of our major media companies are looking for," he said.
Yvonne Boyd, a photographer in Atlanta, said the market for stock imagery has already declined sharply in recent years, and many photo agencies now expect photographers to pick up a larger share of their expenses.
"I can't help but think that somehow Getty will gain something from this, but not their photographers," Boyd said. She and other photographers who commented on Getty's Facebook page also questioned whether an ad-supported website counted as a noncommercial venture.
"When you're potentially making money, even if it's not a service or a product, that's commercial," she said. "You then are benefiting from another's work, and they are not being compensated."
But Peters said the feedback he's received from photographers is "largely positive."
"We have over 200,000 photographers whose work we represent on a global basis. In that world, not everyone's going to always agree with the things we do," he said. But he said he met with a group of photographers Wednesday night, "and they were incredibly excited about it."