Mikael Cho of Unsplash titled his post “The Future of Photography and Unsplash.” In the future, Cho claims, a photography license has no value. Photographers trade away the commercial rights to their existing work in exchange for exposure and a larger audience—to whom they can presumably sell something—other than their images.
“We believed the good from giving our images away would far outweigh what we could earn if we required payment,” Cho writes. Cho isn’t a professional photographer. According to his LinkedIn page, Cho worked in marketing and PR before assuming a creative director role for an apparently defunct company that, according to their Twitter profile, wanted to “help” people with ideas build their startups. Cho went on to co-found Crew, an online database of freelance designers and developers (who do not work for free), and then, in 2013, Unsplash. In response to questions PDN emailed him, he said the images he’s referring to “giving away” were commissioned for the Crew website. “We paid for the rights to the photos and confirmed permission from the photographer to use them on Unsplash,” he told PDN. So when Cho says “our images,” he’s not speaking as a photographer.
Earlier this year, when Cho announced in another blog post that Crew and Unsplash would split into independent companies, he also mentioned that they’d managed to raise $8.5 million from investors and still had roughly $5 million in the bank, about $3.5 million of which was funneled to Unsplash, Cho told me. “We do not make profit with Unsplash today,” he said.
Apple, Facebook and other companies have used Unsplash users’ images in product launches, in-store displays and social media ads. However, Cho says Unsplash did not earn any money from those “collaborations”: “The only money we ever received from Unsplash photos was to cover the cost of producing the Unsplash Book,” Cho told me. “All the profits of the Unsplash Book were split with Unsplash contributors featured in the book.”
The Lots of People Will See Your Images Argument: Cho argues in his blog post that photographers “don’t need to come with an audience or have an agent to be great on Unsplash,” and makes the claim that photos featured on Unsplash are seen more than those on Instagram or the front page of The New York Times. To support this assertion, Cho cites a single Unsplash contributor whose 28 photos have been viewed 140 million times, and downloaded more than 1 million times. Pressed for more evidence of this claim, Cho shared the following figures with me: A photo featured on Unsplash will get “an average of 20m views on Unsplash.com” and 100,000 downloads. He claims that each download generates 1000 views, and thus he arrives at a figure of 120 million views for a featured photo. Cho doesn’t say who downloaded the images and for what purpose, or how he knows how many views a downloaded Unsplash photo gets. So we have to take him at his word that if you put your photo on Unsplash it will get 120 million views. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not that sounds realistic.
The Other People Are Doing It Argument: Cho also cites examples of other creative professionals who have given their work away as a way to justify his company’s model. Timothy Ferris released a chapter of his book for free, Cho writes, and Chance The Rapper released his album Coloring Book via streaming services—he didn’t sell physical copies or downloads. These are false comparisons, however. Ferris gave away a chapter to promote book sales when Barnes and Noble refused to sell his book due to a dispute with Amazon, Ferris’s publisher. Apple Music paid Chance The Rapper $500,000 so their users would have a two-week exclusive on streaming the album, and the musician was also promoting his live performances, for which people still have to pay. Neither artist gave their work to another company and allowed them to use it for free to sell anything, which is what the Unsplash license allows.
He also writes that, “Filmmakers distribute trailers for free on YouTube to sell a movie. Musicians release free songs or entire albums on SoundCloud to sell concert tickets. Authors give free chapters and pour thousands of unpaid hours into blogs to sell a book.” Of course, none of this includes giving away the commercial license to the entire work. I asked Cho about these comparisons, and for examples of other creators who have given away free commercial licenses to their work. His point was not to make direct comparisons, he told me, but “to say that there have been platforms that enable us to express and connect either for the sole purpose of creative expression or creating an audience for something else.” I asked for examples of people who have given away a free commercial license to their work. He cited a blogger, the Wikipedia page for “Public Domain,” and Elon Musk giving away the Tesla patents. I am sure plenty of professional photographers will relate to that last one.
Photographers have and will continue to publish their work online and on social media as a way to grow their audiences. We’ve written extensively about how photo sharing platforms such as Instagram have allowed aspiring photographers to build careers in non-traditional ways and without the recognition of gatekeepers such as photo editors, curators, art buyers and creative directors. They do this by sharing their images and building an audience online, not by giving away for free the right to use their images in ads without compensation.
The Image Licensing Business is Declining Argument: Citing data from Shutterstock, Cho makes another argument in his blog post, which is that the value of a licensed photo continues to plummet. It’s true that the stock photo market has changed drastically in the digital age, and that increased supply has driven down the value of stock images, but many professional photographers still earn a portion of their yearly income through image licensing. Even the annual report figures Cho cherry picks from Shutterstock indicate that image licensing earned Shutterstock contributors $115 million last year, up from $100 million in 2015. True, they had almost 100k more contributors in 2016, so the average per-contributor earnings went down to $511, but it’s hard to claim there’s no value in licensing images—as long as someone else isn’t giving equivalent images away for free.
The “It’s a Way to Make Relationships” Argument: As his final point, Cho asserts that the real value of photos is “As relationship makers.” By publishing their images on Unsplash, Cho writes, “Many have booked client work after posting just a couple photos. Some have been flown around the world on photo shoots. Some have gotten enough work to leave their jobs and become full-time photographers. Some have been able to build audiences for new products.” The stories he shares, however, are not those of professional photographers. None of the writers have substantial client work on their websites. (One user did manage to raise more than $400,000 on Kickstarter for a modular organizer he created, although the connection between that project and Unsplash is unclear.)
When Cho writes, “Every Unsplash photo turns into a billboard for our contributors. And the future business model of Unsplash is about creating relationships through the unique attention and use each photo creates,” he presents no compelling evidence to justify asking his contributors to give away a free commercial license to their images. Nor does he explain the potential impact that giving images away for free could have on the value of images. He writes that “the most common uses for Unsplash photos are presentations, blogs, or personal projects.” Ok. But there are plenty of images available to people for non-commercial use via the Creative Commons license. Why, I asked him, is a commercial license necessary? “It provides clarity,” he told me. “Being able to use a photo however you want is much clearer than, ‘you can use this photo for X but not Y and not Z.’ We believe and are seeing there’s a net positive result for contributors from this clarity.” A Creative Commons license would allow for all of the relationship- and audience-building that Cho claims to want for his contributors, while guaranteeing that his contributors aren’t being taken advantage of by the “people who use Unsplash photos freely who may have hired a photographer if Unsplash didn’t exist.”
Unsplash has been in business since 2013, and it wasn’t until they recently reached out to professionals and asked them to contribute that this site even came to the attention of many in the professional photo community. The imagery on Unsplash isn’t likely to make it a competitor of professional photo licensing services anytime soon. I do hope, however, that aspiring professionals realize that their work has value, and that giving away their copyright to a platform such as Unsplash undermines not only that value of their own work, but of professional photography as a career.
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