Instagram’s rights issue from one artist’s perspective
Instagram said today that it has the perpetual right to sell users’ photographs without payment or notification, a dramatic policy shift that quickly sparked a public outcry.
The new intellectual property policy, which takes effect on January 16, comes three months after Facebook completed its acquisition of the popular photo-sharing site. Unless Instagram users delete their accounts before the January deadline, they cannot opt out.
Under the new policy, Facebook claims the perpetual right to license all public Instagram photos to companies or any other organization, including for advertising purposes, which would effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency. One irked Twitter user quipped that “Instagram is now the new iStockPhoto, except they won’t have to pay you anything to use your images.”
I’m sure you’ve seen the headline and the above article. It seems to be everywhere I turn today. You might also notice that the link to my Instragram, formerly located in the right sidebar, is now missing. My decision to no longer use Instagram doesn’t have anything to do with the updated policy per se, but it’s certainly something to think about, particularly if you’re an artist whose imagery is part of your living (like me).
In a brief Facebook conversation on the topic (y’all know that Facebook’s policies about content are almost identical to Instagram’s, right?) with illustrator Dominic DeVenuta, I said that the policy didn’t seem that radically different to me than the one they had in place before, albeit the new one is much more explicit. I called Instagram’s policy “payment roulette”: you use it for free, and they might use your images for free.
I understand both sides of the issue: Facebook doesn’t want to ask every time they use an image, or many images, to promote their services. They’re also looking for ways to monetize the services they offer without having to lean too heavily on advertising through Facebook Mobile, because it turns off users (and thus Facebook’s primary commodity). I do think that Facebook could and should roll out a more reasonable policy for Instagram, or at least one that is less broad and more specific; while I don’t believe that their intention is to treat Instagram like a stock photo source (as is not-so-playfully mentioned in the CNet article), the fact that their policy language allows for that is worrying. What happens if Facebook stock dives and they need a quick solution to up their profit? Well, there’s always Instagram…
The thing that worries me most about this hot-button topic is that many artists, illustrators, and others who trade in visual media don’t appear to have considered this before. As an artist, my primary concern is always how my images can be used wherever I post them. The only things I’ve ever posted to Instagram are rough sketches and silly photos; any time I post images to Facebook, I use a link to my Flickr rather than posting content directly. Same goes for Google+, though their policies are a bit less free-for-all than Facebook’s.
Always take the time to read the terms of service. Yes, it’s dry; yes, you just want to get started, but the only way to know where you stand and what rights you have when posting through a third party is to read the damn document. At the very least, skim it the whole way through. After a while, you get used to the language.
If you are an illustrator, fine artist, or other visual media creator, I personally recommend Flickr. I’ve never liked Instagram; I didn’t have it for long. I’ve been a Flickr user for six years, and I think their mobile app beats the pants off of Instagram for visual professionals. So, for all of you out there getting your panties in a twist over this Instagram news, consider a change: Flickr lets you choose your level of copyright for each image you post, if you so desire. They don’t have any cheesy filters, but if you’re a visual professional, you shouldn’t need those things anyway. Actually, as someone who used to be a photographer (you remember: film, darkroom, light-sensitive paper), those filters kind of drove me crazy.
I imagine that what will really happen is that people will keep using Instagram, and whenever a policy update rolls out, we’ll see more headlines like the one at the top of this post. It’s certainly what happens on Facebook. But seriously, social media is a new thing in our culture. We should examine it, question it, and not just docilely accept things that make us uncomfortable. There are options: move to a different service, start writing actual letters again (I keep waiting for that to be the “cool” thing), and think about what you post before you do it. We might be sitting alone in our homes with a computer when we use social media, or curled in the corner of cafés with our smart phones in our faces, but social media is very public. Every one of us now has a public persona, and we should all think about what that means and who we’re giving access to what we post. It’s not a small thing.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming, with a post I’ve been working on about paper appearing later this week. Hopefully.