Over 10 million images in total – will soon be available on a new hosted image service from Google, Time Inc. has announced. Ninety-seven percent of the photographs have never been seen by the public.

The LIFE Photo Archive featured on Google will be among the largest professional photography collections on the Web and one of the largest scanning projects ever undertaken.


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  1. Dear Rob,
    thank you for the post!! It’s a gorgeous collection. But are the images availeble for publication? As the rights should be owned by Getty… What do you think about it?

  2. Rob – was just about to write comment on Jeff Riedel story, such a great interview. About the Life archive – I remember when they started this project, was working at CBS at that time and made frequent study visits to the basement in Time Life building to look at the new DIGITAL LIBRARY which was the first of it´s kind at the time. I also have memories of working at Life (during David Friend era) and spending hours looking thru the old archive, dusty, yellowing and amazing photo essays, contact sheets and prints in folders in old metal cabinets…thanks for great posts! K

    • @Kristina Snyder, I too remember those amazing files, a real insight into how it used to be in our industry, and I recall the great efforts that were made to bring the archive online. That Time Life couldn’t pull it off and become a supplier without third party help is sad enough. We’re talking 15 years ago right? How they’ve thrashed around in that time; now Life has sold its soul (and whoever else’s soul got scooped up in the 10 million images) to Google. And soon we’ll be seeing the Time Life Collection on a Getty platform, with ads for KY jelly (just guessing).

      Anyone want to open a tea shop with me?

  3. Isn’t this a flagrant and disgusting disregard for the copyright of the photographer. Hosting all the images of photographers that contributed to the magazine and displaying them out of editorial context and offering prints for sale?

    Is there any reason this is not breaking federal copyright law?

    Is there any reason anyone should ever believe Google are interested in anything but themselves?


    • @Mike Hartley,

      I don’t know and am no expert, but the photographers
      were probably hired under standard “work for hire” contract and since Life Magazine no longer exists (does any subsidiary who might have renewed the rights?), the pictures are out of copyright. Would love to see an actual Life Mag contract with photographers.

      I try to license my pictures instead of selling services outright under a “work for hire” situation. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. I wonder how other photographers in this blog work…


  4. Mike:
    No, there’s no reason anyone should ever believe Google is interested in anything but themselves. As a publicly held company, they’re legally required to act only in the best interest of their shareholders.

    • @Eric Schmiedl, I agree, I stopped saying it so definitively because everyone appeared to have drink the kool-aid and no-one was listening, so I made it a question. Thanks for reminding me its obvious.

  5. There are interesting finds in the jumble of images. I typed in W. Eugene Smith and found portraits of him by Gjon Mili (including a contact sheet) and followed the trail to his famous Spanish Village and Country Doctor features.

    Spanish Village:

    Country Doctor:


    It is fun to see the extended shoot as well as the finished layout.

  6. @Mike Hartley: that depends upon the terms under which those photographers did their work for Life, so take a deep breath.

    If they shot as work-for-hire, then Life owns the copyright, pure and simple. Even if they didn’t work for hire, they may have signed licensing agreements that gave Life the legal right to do just this.

    One more reason to look closely at the contracts you sign when accepting assignments.

    • @Michael S., I know for a fact there are images on the Life platform that are not their copyright, I would not have posted otherwise.

  7. Great resource.

    Interestingly the archive links only go to the 1970s. Admittedly this covers the Golden Era of the magazine. Maybe they are still busy scanning!

    Alternately, maybe by the 80s photographers became a bit wiser regarding contract details. Try searching for work by Joe McNally (on staff for Life in the 90s) and you will not get anything except a few Time covers…

    I did find these gems from the 90s by Eisie of Bill Clinton & family…


    Thanks for sharing this Rob.

  8. I assure you, not all the images in this archive are owned by Life. Easier to apologize after the fact than ask for permission in the first place, apparently.
    They have not made efforts to properly attribute the images, there’s no file info in their scans and bare bones info in the search result. They’re contributing to the orphaning of works…hmmm why would Google want to do that I wonder…

  9. I’ll be darned surprised if these are actually all copyrighted, especially the turn-of-the century ones, as they had to be renewed in the year of expiry or become public domain. Just slapping a copyright label on something doesn’t make it so.

    There’s also no contact information of any kind, making it impossible to obtain further information about rights.

    Not is there any means of offering corrections. The very first photo I saw is completely mislabled.


    Yer Model T didn’t appear until the end of 1908; what they got there is a Cadillac Model K. Feh, and double feh.

  10. “We’re excited to announce the availability of never-before-seen images from the LIFE photo archive. This effort to bring offline images online was inspired by our mission to organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. This collection of newly-digitized images includes photos and etchings produced and owned by LIFE dating all the way back to the 1750s.”

    Sounds so altruistic. Perhaps “our mission is to organize all the world’s information so we can exploit it for our own profit by selling ads and turning pages” would be closer to the mark.

  11. Life sez:

    “We are fine will personal non-commercial uses of our images, as long as:

    a) Photographer and Credit is illustrated with each image in readable font, such as Joe Smith © Time Inc., Courtesy of LIFE.com

    b) The blog or personal site contains no ads or commerce of any find

    Jeff Burak
    Director, Business Development – LIFE
    .COM | Branded Products | Picture Collection | Picture Syndication
    212-522-2114 (o)
    917-374-7715 (m)
    AIM: JeffLBurak”

    • @D Traver Adolphus, Nice of Life to encourage others to further break federal law. Not a single image in the archive is marked with anything other than © Time Inc, so how anyone can use them and honor the original and legally binding copyright for personal use escapes me.

    • @D Traver Adolphus, Life say ‘The blog or personal site contains no ads or commerce of any find’ but Life are happy to sell prints of copyrighted works and break federal law however. No ads, but revenue generation is certainly at the core of Life’s aim.

  12. ““We are fine will personal non-commercial uses of our images, as long as:

    a) Photographer and Credit is illustrated with each image in readable font, such as Joe Smith © Time Inc., Courtesy of LIFE.com

    b) The blog or personal site contains no ads or commerce of any find”

    Excuse me, but there are images in this archive going back into the 1700’s. Are we suppose to sit here and believe that EVERY IMAGE is copyrighted by Life? Lifetime of the photographer plus 75 years protection last I checked, which means those early photos are available for commercial use or whatever other use a person may have for them, despite Life’s little caveat emptor. It’s misinformation like this that makes actual copyright law loathed by the consuming public.

    • @Gloria, They don’t know, they couldn’t possibly go through 10 million files. I hope anyone whose images have been scooped up can find them and get them the hell out of Google ‘do more evil’

  13. Gloria,
    Photography has only been around since the 1840s or so… I haven’t done the research on this, but my understanding is that anything produced before the mid-1920s is public domain. If it’s public domain, you can do anything you want with it including slap your name on it and claim it’s copyrighted — either Getty or Corbis tried this with some NASA photos, I believe. (any photos produced by US Government employees are public domain, since they’re work for hire owned by the taxpayers)

  14. It’s strange that they have the technology and resources to scan and search millions of images by year or subject, but you can’t click on the photographer’s name and see all of their images.

    When I manually copy and paste “Henri Cartier-Bresson” in the search field I get some results, but I don’t know if what is displayed are the only HCB images in the archive, even if I suspect there are more. There are content tags but the photographers don’t seem to ever show up in those tags. Related, it seems like Bert Stern is not in there at all.

  15. Many content creators (that’s almost everyone here) ranting about Google disrespecting their copyrights fail to understand something. What you should realize about Google is _who_ the people at Google are. As one of if not the most influential organizations in the new-media world, understanding Google’s mindset is key to understanding where media will go from here on out.

    Google is a fairly young company that was founded just a year before Napster kicked off the Internet copyright-infringement revolution. They recruit massively at high-end technical schools like MIT, Stanford, and Caltech; their strategy is to get thousands of the most brilliant computer-science students right out of college or grad school.

    This means that by and large the people that run Google grew up in a world where content was something they downloaded from Napster and BitTorrent and Kazaa; by and large, content was something that Other People did for a living. If they came to Google with content-creation experience, it was probably a hobby.

    The meat-and-potatoes — the stuff they really cared about — was the engineering, the code, the technology that delivered the content. Even then, many of them grew up surrounded by the Free Software / Open Source ethos of sharing the intellectual property they create (the software code) with the world so that others could adapt and improve upon it.

    Therefore, many of Google’s engineers likely consider the entire idea of copyright to be an obstacle in their paths. While they understand that they must follow the advice of Google’s legal department on copyright, many likely believe that “information wants to be free” with an intensity of faith heretofore seen only among religious fundamentalists.

    While many participate in sites like Flickr, comparatively few probably understand what it means to be a professional artist who depends on intellectual property for income. If they think they do, it’s probably because they or someone they know uploads to iStockphoto or does graphic design work on the side.

    On the other hand, Google as a company is deeply committed to delivering the best possible experience to the end user: the searcher. They want you to find the most useful possible result as quickly as possible. That means delivering easy-to-download images from the Life archive that are high enough resolution that people find them useful — regardless what that use may be.

    And like it or not, these people are in charge of the world’s information and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

    Fortunately, they’re starting to learn that intellectual property is something they have to live with. The AP’s photos and content are now hosted on Google’s servers as part of a (presumably revenue-sharing) agreement with Google. Some time ago, the Google-owned YouTube introduced a system whereby copyright holders had three options for dealing with infringing videos: leave it up, take it down, or monetize it through ads. And the recent Google Book Search $115 million settlement gave Google the ability to more or less fulfill their mission of organizing the information in books while giving the content owners a new and hopefully profitable revenue stream from people who wouldn’t otherwise know about those books.

    I think this trend will continue — even if it happens by Google being dragged kicking and screaming along by the courts. They may not know it and certainly publicly deny it, but their continued existence depends on this happening. Remember how I said that the people behind Google are often incredibly focused on the engineering and technology and often ignore the value of the content their technology operates on? Well, the explosion of the web — the vast body of information that makes Google’s success at search a commercially valuable product — may be driven by technology enabling increasing access to information, but it can’t exist without information. The key fact that Google, the blogosphere, the user-generated content champions, the Creative Commons advocates, and all the rest of the Web 2.0 wonks like to forget is that professional content is key. If it’s not profitable to produce content, then there is precious little to search through, link to, remix, mashup, or comment on.

    I recently attended a presentation at the MIT Media Lab from a researcher who had mapped the links between blogs and other user-generated-content sites. The data he showed us demonstrated unequivocally that professional journalism (the New York Times, in particular) represented an 800lb-gorilla of original material that the bloggers linked to far more often than user-generated-content. How does that matter for us? Without that professional content, the articles that feed the great blogging machine, the videos that people re-edit for humor value on YouTube, and the beautiful campaign photos that people post to blogs all will vanish. The fact that blogs link to the pros around an order of magnitude more than they link to other blogs shows their unwillingness to accept a less-professional substitute. (Even in the do-it-yourself community of Strobist photographers, the longest-lasting thread in the Strobist Flickr group is about achieving a ‘look’ that first came from pro shooter Dave Hill!) If Vincent Laforet’s predictions of a perfect storm for the editorial world come to pass, the amateurs will be hard-pressed to fill the vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum.

    There is simply too much demand for professional content for someone to not monetize it in the new economy. We’re already seeing the beginning of the inevitable with the wild success of the iTunes Music Store. I expect we’ll see more of it with Hulu, with the YouTube ad-revenue sharing scheme, and with Google Book Search. The question then is not _if_ Google will start realizing that content has value; they’ve already started down that path. The question is how long until they realize that they can make more money by making things profitable for content creators than they can by trampling those creators’ rights.

    As a publicly-held company, Google is required to act in the best interest of their shareholders — nothing more, and nothing less. This has kept them respecting copyright when forced to do so by the law, and it will push them to support content creators when forced to do so by the economy. But as an organization made up of people who have very different views on how intellectual property should work, they won’t do it in the traditional ways. They’ll never become a rights-managed stock house licensing photos for $400 apiece any more than they would take a hard-line approach to YouTube copyright infringement. That’s fundamentally incompatible with a market where most of the people using the content think of things in terms of $19 a month for their Internet connection and buying $10 extra in books to save $5 on shipping from Amazon.com — and for whom ownership is defined by physical and not legal constraints. Those new users are the ones that came to iStock and thought it was perfectly reasonable to sell their photos for $1 a shot in the beginning, and they’re the ones that figure it’s okay to “borrow” images on a blog because those hefty licensing fees can’t possibly apply to them. Compared to traditional licensees, the new user base is an alien species that traditional content creators can’t really be expected to understand. If these new users are the ever-closer future of the editorial industry, no wonder things are going to hell in a handbasket…

    Just as the Internet came out of far left field from the perspective of traditional media, so too will the solutions for making money off media in the age of the Internet. And I’d say Google is in a good a position as anyone to come up with some good ones. It’s not like they have a choice.

    (this ended up getting so long that I posted it here: http://analysis.ericschmiedl.com/2008/11/why-google-and-the-internet-will-embrace-creators-rights/
    I created analysis.ericschmiedl.com a while ago as a future home for thoughts on where the industry is going, and I’ll be updating it both with some older essays and newer ideas as they come.)

    • @Eric Schmiedl, ‘But as an organization made up of people who have very different views on how intellectual property should work, they won’t do it in the traditional ways. ‘ – except when it comes to their own copyright and intellectual property (the algorithm).

  16. Show me photos and story re: Gulf Park College for Women….done in 1950-51 Thanks–I was a student there at that time…….

  17. Show me photos and story done @ Gulf Park College for Women,1950-51. I was a student there at that time…….

  18. I believe the photographer was Handleman ? Houseman?

  19. Dear Sir:

    I have written a book and am interested in obtaining a copyright authorization for the photo of two Charleston dancers on the cover of Life magazine’s February 18th, 1926, issue. I would appreciate your advising me as to a contact for obtaining this permission.

    Sincerely, C. C. Bradbury

    • @Charles C. Bradbury,

  20. Unknown can be exactly like me. Again even I experience trouble doing it.

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