A New Low: “Photo Community” Asks for (and Gets) Free Commercial License to Photos

Posted by on Monday July 17, 2017 | Business

A screen grab from Unsplash’s company history web page. In 2015, Apple partnered with the company for in-store galleries featuring Unsplash contributors’ photos.


Yes, it’s finally happened. A “photo community” is asking contributors to go ahead and give up all rights to their images, including for commercial use. Unsplash, which aggregates photos “gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers,” has written truly jaw-dropping Terms that encourage photographers to let anyone use their images for no fee.

Photographers have balked for years about the Terms of Use agreements for Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other social sharing sites, but Unsplash’s usage terms represent a new low. If you upload an image to Unsplash, it could end up in Times Square with a Coca-Cola logo on it, and the Coca-Cola Company would owe you exactly nothing for that use.

Founded in 2013, Unsplash has “millions of members” and in 2016, 144 million photos were downloaded from the site, according to a blog post by its CEO, Mikael Cho. According to the company’s website, Apple used images by Unsplash contributors in the launch of the iPad pro in 2016, an Upsplash photo was used in a Pringles social media ad, and in 2015 three Apple Stores in Montreal, New York and Boston created in-store galleries with Unsplash images. According to Wired, Facebook used Unsplash photos to market its Slack competitor, Workforce.

Here’s how the Unsplash license reads, in-full:

All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.

More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.

In an email to a professional photographer obtained by PDN, Unsplash claimed that their license “means people can use the photos in other forms of creation (which extends your photo’s reach around the world).” There is something truly chilling about a site asking photographers to give away commercial licenses to their photographs for free, while in the same statement specifying that if anyone takes those free photos and aggregates them in a “similar or competing” way, then they are in violation of Unsplash’s rights.

In a twist of sad irony, Unsplash was founded by the same people who founded Crew, a website that aims to help people hire professional designers and developers. The two startups reportedly raised $8.5 million in 2015. The message seems to be: creative work is valuable, except for photography.

In a “manifesto” published on the site, Unsplash laments the fact that, “creatives” were always having to go through the process of actually paying fees to license images! Any mention of whether or not the images are model released, whether or not there’s any way to gain image exclusivity or any of the other things about image licensing that concern most “creatives”? To wit:

The internet was meant to connect, inform, and inspire us in unprecedented ways. Yet, when it came to usable images, that connection was shut down. While the need for images was increasing dramatically, the systems supporting the supply of usable images were incompatible.

Unsplash was formed as the antithesis to the stock image experiences available at the time. Instead of vast libraries, licensed and presented for commercial buyers, Unsplash focused on giving original, high-resolution images for anyone and free to use for anything.

In its Terms & Conditions language, Unsplash specifies that its license does not give users who download images the right to publish brand logos or “people’s images if they are recognizable.” Permission from brands and model releases are the photographer and user’s problem, in other words.

So, who is up for joining “the world’s most generous community of photographers”? Perhaps the better question to ask: what self-respecting “creative” would actually use these images for free?



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