Instagram’s rights issue from one artist’s perspective

CNET: Instagram says it now has the right to sell your photos

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.

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 without having to lean too heavily on intrusive advertising, 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.

The thing that disturbs 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, I am always considering how my images can be used wherever I post them.

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.

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 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 smartphones in our faces, but social media is 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.

/soapbox

We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.

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