Making money from photographs on the Internet

This week Internet photo sharing site Instagram made headlines for an apparent change in its terms and conditions that would, it was claimed, allow the site to sell users’ uploaded photographs without further compensation. A few days later it made an apparent u-turn.

In the midst of the storm of dis-proportionate rage and indignation, Never Mrgan makes the point that even if Instagram did claim the right to resell a photograph without compensating the owner1, properly licensed high quality professional photographs are better and of more certain provenance. I think broadly this is true, but online photography fora are also full of stories of traditional media outlets ripping off photographs from websites such as flickr (where copyright licence terms are clearly asserted) and then claiming ignorance of copyright law and/or offering only negligible compensation when challenged by the owner.

Since many people just click through terms and conditions without reading or understanding them, any publicity that increases public understanding as to how online services work and make money has to be a good thing. For many people finding themselves to have taken a highly sought after photograph, perhaps of some rare or newsworthy event, the fame brought by being properly credited as the owner will be sufficient. But the clear message here is that if you ever think you might be in possession of a photograph or video more valuable than five minutes of fame, be very careful where you post it.

Perhaps this week’s outrage is also a symptom of the division in Internet photograph sharing between those photographers who prefer niche sites such as flickr and 500px, and everyone else who uses Facebook. The first group know that Facebook’s ability to disseminate content through its social graph is far greater than the dissemination available on their preferred platforms and they had hoped Instagram would bridge that gap, providing the features they wanted with the distribution potential of a social network.

This was also a potential missed opportunity for Instagram. The aforementioned copyright thefts by large media companies happen because a copyright holder has pursue each infraction individually, usually against corporate legal departments. If Instagram were to start selling sub-licences to photographs but promised to return a portion of the money over some large threshold to the photographer2 then Instagram would be the platform of choice.

  1. and it is possible it always has [back]
  2. similar to YouTube’s partner programme [back]