Last week, I ran across three different references to an eye-opening documentary titled A History of the World According to Getty Images. This impressive video created by British filmmaker Richard Misek explores the way that historic films are hidden from public view by paywalls from a few corporations that charge exorbitant fees for access. Much of this historic material is technically in the public domain or was never under copyright.
Misek’s video aims to release these images from “captivity.” Starting with a montage of dramatic historical footage followed by a roundup of the high price-tag they command, Misek then dives into a series of clips one at a time to detail their history, including how visual media companies have exploited them. Ultimately, he makes a compelling argument that this murky practice has major public interest implications that extend far beyond the high price-tag for filmmakers.
From Misek’s website:
‘A History of the World According to Getty Images’ is a short documentary about property, profit, and power, made out of archive footage sourced from the online catalogue of Getty Images. It forms a historical journey through some of the most significant moments of change caught on camera, while at the same time reflecting on archive images’ own histories as commodities and on their exploitation as ‘intellectual property’.
As the largest commercial image archive in the world, Getty Images is particularly worthy of attention here. Many of the defining images of the last century – for example, the Apollo moon landings and the first breach of the Berlin Wall – are owned by Getty. These images live in our heads, and form a part of our collective memory. But in most cases, we cannot access them, as they are held captive behind Getty’s (as well as many other archives’) paywalls.
The film explores how image banks including Getty gain control over, and then restrict access to, archive images – even when these images are legally in the public domain. It also forms a small act of resistance against this practice: the film includes six legally licensed clips, and is downloadable as an HD ProRes file. In this way, it aims to liberate these few short clips from corporate control, and make them freely available for viewing and artistic use.