In what we can call a completely unexpected move, Getty Images acquired Unsplash, one of the best-known copyright-free images providers.
How does this affect web and UX designers?
We’ll answer all questions here.
Getty acquires Unsplash: the announcement
On March 30, 2021, Unsplash users received an email with a completely unexpected announcement. It said that Getty Images, one of the most important providers of copyrighted images, had acquired Unsplash, perhaps the most important provider of copyright-free images.
The text of the email can be read in the image below:
What does this takeover entail? Basically, the email warns that nothing will change and everything will continue as usual.
Excellent news, isn’t it?
Will free images remain free?
Well, let’s see what we know so far.
As we have said and can read in the email, there will be no changes of any kind. This means that free images will continue to be free.
This gratuity applies to end users of images as well as photographers and content creators. Keep in mind that photographers do not receive compensation from Unsplash, but rely on donations that users make freely.
In short, it’s business as usual, nothing to worry about.
When did Getty Images officially acquire Unsplash?
March 30, 2021.
Will anything change because of the acquisition?
Unsplash will continue operating as we have been with the same team, the same site, the same community. Unsplash images will continue to be free.
Does this change the Unsplash license?
No, the Unsplash License remains unchanged.
Will Unsplash continue to be free?
Who can I contact if I have questions?https://help.unsplash.com/en/articles/5097983-unsplash-getty-images-faq
The land of speculation
Now anyone who has observed the world of corporate takeovers or buyouts over time knows that none of the initial “nothing will change” announcements have ever come true. As far as we know, there are no exceptions to this rule either.
Is it possible that the Unsplash case is the first known exception?
Could be. In Unsplash’s case, the business model is based on advertising and free content. Unsplash has no relevant assets other than the brand and some technology many others have.
And what Getty Images buys is the Unsplash brand, not the free images.
But there is a much more important intangible asset: the users of the images and the creators.
With 550 billion views, Unsplash is a large service that focuses on a relatively localized audience in terms of interest and age.
Add to that 242,000 content contributors, more than 11,000 apps using the API, and more than 3 million photos used by said API, and the acquisition takes on a different color.
Moreover, Unsplash has launched two new services during 2020: Unsplash for Brands and Unsplash Hire. The first is a dedicated service to provide visual content to brands and which “curiously”, although created last year, has not been launched publicly, you can only sign up on a waiting list.
In the second case (Unsplash Hire) Unsplash works as a platform to connect clients with freelancers. Something like Upwork or Toptal, but Unsplash doesn’t get commissions for the service.
However, if you access Unsplash Hire FAQ you can see that both Unspalsh Hire and Unsplash for Brands are connected in some way. Or rather, they are planned for the first months of 2021.
The concrete thing is that there is a real possibility that, for the first time in history, a takeover will not change anything, at least in the perception of users: the model works well as it is, and there is no need to touch it.
Assuming something does change
Of course, there is the most tangible and concrete possibility that this announcement is nothing more than an expression of goodwill on the part of Mikael Cho, CEO of Unsplash. And that, in reality, what has always happened will happen: that things will change, and not exactly for the benefit of users.
Let’s remember the Ethical UX maxim: “If the product is free, then you are the product.”
After all, Getty isn’t exactly a non-profit, and sooner rather than later its shareholders will be pushing for money from this acquisition.
There’s even a middle ground: on the end-user side, it remains free, but there’s a cost for API consumption. With more than 11,000 apps depending on the Unsplash API, many would cease to exist without it. And others would be forced to pay.
An example of these apps are Figma and Sketch: both have plugins to import images directly from Unsplash. Both apps announced certain terms to generate traction at the time, and once they had the momentum, they changed them. In fact, Figma announced just 15 days ago that its free model isn’t as free as it once was.
The most likely scenario
The most likely scenario, however, is that Getty Images will take over Unsplash users, both consumers and creators.
They probably won’t care about photographic content, and it can be expected to plummet in quality and quantity. Still maintaining the same terms as before, Unsplash is a direct competitor, and Getty is not going to shoot itself in the foot by keeping the same level of quality for free images. It’s unrealistic to expect Getty Images to let Unsplash grow at their expense.
Will we still have free images without copyright in the future?
Well, for now, we can only speculate. Unsplash’s announcement ensures that free images will continue to be so in the future.
In our opinion, although this will still be the case, there will be important changes. And we don’t think we’ll have to wait long to see them. According to Unsplash’s CEO, this move has been in the works since 2016, so there’s obviously a lot we don’t know. Just for starters, it was very striking that a site like Unsplash was able to grow like this without external funding, outpacing other much larger and more established players. Now it can be deduced that this funding has always existed.
However, both web designers and UI designers can acquire copyright-free images from other similar repositories such as Pixabay, Pexels and many others. The same is true for content creators.
We believe that what can happen with Unsplash for Brands is very interesting, and we are sure that there will be movements in the content creation business.
Anyway: As in all cases, all these businesses have a free period, but the free meals don’t last forever.
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