Social sharing of photos – are you giving away your rights for free?

by DaniGirl on January 5, 2012 · 3 comments

in Photography

I have been posting my pictures on the Internet forever, going back to the first website I built back in 2000 or so, and I’ve always known there were inherent risks. I’d always figured, though, that the biggest risk would be that someone takes one of my pictures and misappropriates it.

However, as I’ve become more serious about photography, I’ve realized that there are a lot of ways you can unwittingly give someone (or more nefariously, a big corporation) the right to use your pictures in any way they choose, commercial or not. Did you know, for example, that each time you use Instagram or Hipstamatic or TwitPic, you have granted “a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content”? (Taken verbatim from the Instagram terrms of service you agreed to when you signed up for the service, but the others are pretty similar.) They need a certain amount of rights to display and back up your pictures, but these terms seem to go above and beyond what would be requried for that.

So what does this mean? Well, most importantly it means that they can use your picture or any part of it in pretty much any way they like — advertising, derivative works, etc. It also means that if you happen to go pro and start licensing your images through a stock agency like Getty Images, you’ve limited the kind of licensing model that can be assigned to that photo. The photo loses some of its attractiveness to certain buyers who might want (and pay big bucks for) an exclusive license. And this isn’t just limited to fine art photography — you might be at the right place at the right time and capture an editorial photograph that a newspaper, magazine or television station might pay to use, but once you sign away your rights, you instantly lose control of a significant part of your negotiating power.

For more information on social sharing of pictures, copyright and licensing models, see Jon Boyes great blog post on the subject. There’s also been a huge amount of discussion on Facebook and photo rights, and more recently on Google +. It’s a minefield for sure!

And if you’re an amateur shutterbug looking for more, ahem, exposure for your pictures, you might want to think twice before submitting your pictures to any photo contests. Read the fine print and you’ll find that a lot of contests are simply what photographers call “rights grabs” – watch out for wording in the rules and regulations that says you grant the contest organizers any kind of royalty-free license if you have even the faintest aspiration of licensing that photo at any point in the future. For example, the rules and regulations of National Geographic’s 2011 photo contest has this clause at the bottom of a long page of jargon:

By entering the Contest, all entrants grant an irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide non-exclusive license to Authorized Parties, to reproduce, distribute, display and create derivative works of the entries (along with a name credit) in connection with the Contest and promotion of the Contest, in any media now or hereafter known, including, but not limited to: Display at a potential exhibition of winners; publication of a book featuring select entries in the Contest; publication in National Geographic magazine or online highlighting entries or winners of the Contest. Entrants consent to the Sponsor doing or omitting to do any act that would otherwise infringe the entrant’s “moral rights” in their entries.

Even something as simple as uploading your sunset pictures to the Weather Network will require you to sign away your rights:

You hereby grant to PMI a world-wide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive right and licence to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, distribute and sub-licence any and all material or information submitted by you to this Web site or by e-mail to PMI and/or to incorporate it in other works regardless of form, medium or technology. In addition, you hereby waive any moral rights you have in any and all material or information submitted by you to this Web site or by e-mail.

So what does all of this mean? Just be aware of what you’re agreeing to before you allow someone to use your pictures. You may not care where they end up or how they’re ultimately used, but I really had no idea about most of this stuff until recently. You may find that entering that contest will be more valuable to you than keeping the rights of a photo you cherish, or that you’re comfortable sharing your iPhone snaps via TwitPic, and that’s entirely up to you. It’s making an informed decision that counts!


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sara January 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Holy Crap!!! I never read the find print when signing up to websites/services. Guess who’s gonna share a lot less photos? Me. Yup! You guessed it.

I read all the rules and regulations for contests and thus why I never enter any contests. Lol. Silly me. I’m doing the same thing I didn’t want with my Instagram etc pics. Darn!!

Thanks for brining this to light. I’ll look more closely. Not to mention share my not so nice photos.

2 Paula January 6, 2012 at 8:41 am

Thanks for this information Dani and for the link to Don Boye’s post, I had no idea either. Another reason we should all go over the fine print with a fine toothed comb!

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