The ways in which art and entertainment are released, sold, and consumed are as myriad as they are unpredictable.
A decade ago, who would have guessed that a top-selling band would be expected to pay the NFL for the privilege of performing at the Super Bowl halftime show? Or that a pip-squeak country armed with nukes might dictate the Christmas movie release schedule of a major entertainment company?
So why should it surprise us that many of today’s professional photographers are actively giving away their creative content?
With the advent of inexpensive quality cameras, someone with a good eye and a device that sells for a few hundred dollars can capture a photo that once might have been licensed for thousands of dollars. As the avenues to circulate those images with the world become easier to navigate, the concept of “professional” has become increasingly muddled.
And sharing has a nicer ring to it than giveaway, doesn’t it?
“In this information age the creator is nothing, the aggregator is everything,” says Bob Krist, a photographer who has shot more than 40 stories for National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler over a 30-year career, to name just two outlets.
While high-profile print magazines probably haven’t started scrounging bargain sites like Fotolia and Stock Free Images, there’s no question that the cost to license professional-quality photos has plummeted over the last decade. Today, many images are provided to publications free-of-charge.
“But the issue isn’t providing photos for free,” suggests Krist. “It’s when someone else is profiting off your work and you’re not.”
Photo sharing sites like Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and Unsplash are useful resources for editorial outlets—including this one—to obtain royalty-free images for publication. On Flickr, photographers specify the type of license they are willing to grant, which can include “all rights reserved.” But you’ll also find more than 300 million photos that can be downloaded through Creative Commons, licenses chosen by Flickr members that allow varying degrees of commercial use. As a rule, no money goes to the photographer.
“Look who’s making the money,” Krist asks. “When you look under the surface and analyze the chain of command, the photographer is the only one going unpaid or not on a salary.”
“It’s really sad,” says stock agency owner Danita Delimont. “Great professionals who used to travel the world are becoming wedding photographers or portrait photographers, or they’re doing camera tours and teaching people how to take great photos. These students take those photos and put them out there for free.”
“My new career is talking about my old career,” sighs Krist.
Presumably, most of the photographers using Flickr and Wikimedia Commons are comfortable with not making a living off their creative work. But not all of them appear to understand the ramifications of the licenses they choose.
One Flickr member states in her profile:
“If you like a picture and want to link, print or copy it—please e-mail and ask first. I’m sure I will not mind but I hate it when people steal from me…”
This photographer doesn’t realize that the license she has chosen for her photos (CC BY-SA 2.0) does not require a website or print publication, or even an ad agency, to contact her prior to using the images. That license allows anyone to take her image and use it on a billboard or bus bench to sell anything from condoms to mink coats.
In sum, we can’t “steal” what is given to us. Once a photo is posted with a minimally restrictive license, such as the one described above, there is no going back. The original owner can remove their image from Flickr, but anyone who downloaded the photo previously, including Flickr, is free to copy and redistribute the image in any medium, including commercially.
Still, some are comfortable with giving up rights that traditional photographers have employed to protect their work, and use these types of photo sharing services as a vehicle to showcase their work.
“I like to see people enjoying my photos,” explains Nathan Congleton, a New York City-based photographer for MSNBC, who freelances on the side. “I used to be strict on photo usage. I would constantly track people down and tell them to remove my photos, and that they didn’t have permission to post them. Over time, I became more relaxed.”
Congleton says he has made “zero dollars” from posting his images to Flickr, yet he claims more than 5 million views and almost 15,000 followers.
“The reality is, no one is going to pay me for those images, so instead of fighting it I can play a large part in inspiring other people to become interested in photography,” Congleton adds.
We have only ourselves to blame?
Aleksandra Boguslawska, a Cracow, Poland-based photographer, argues that sites like Unsplash devalue works of art and are harming the whole creative industry. In her commentary on PetaPixel, Boguslawska writes:
“Everyone... seem to forget that all the value is contributed by photographers themselves. Not the Unsplash team, who just curate the submissions and reap the rewards, but by artists who want to promote their work and eventually sell their photography. By removing that element, Unsplash, bloggers, magazines, publishers, companies and all others who use photos commercially, are actively hurting professional photography industry in the worst way possible: by undermining its relevancy."
But it’s not just would-be professionals that might want to think twice about giving away their content. Amateur photographers seem eager to provide their photos to social media sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook—websites built entirely around content provided by users. Advertising income flows in, but the revenue is not shared with those who create the images.
Facebook says “we do not currently share” content, but look at the terms its subsidiary Instagram requires of its users:
“By displaying or publishing (“posting”) any Content on or through the Instagram Services, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channels…”
As Álvaro J. Soltero, co-founder and managing editor of The Social U put it: “Do you still own your pictures? Well, yes, kind of. It’s like you bought a brand new car with your hard-earned money, and it’s 100% yours, except that this friend of yours can come and take it for a spin any time he wants.”
And even if companies like Facebook and Instagram are not literally re-selling your work—“currently”—they’re still profiting from it today. That’s because, as Mark Zuckerberg explained during an earnings call reported by Huffington Post, shared photos help blur the line between communications with your friends and the ads Facebook sends your way.
Users sharing their images allows Facebook to “offer more engaging experiences for advertisers,” said Zuckerberg. In short, by making it easier for you to post your photos, Facebook keeps its advertisers happy.
No wonder Facebook ponied up $1 billion to buy Instagram: the acquisition included its users.