Photographers, the Battle with Social Network Terms of Service Is Lost — Get Used To It

Let’s face it, you are waging a losing battle. In fact, it’s not even a battle because one side has won already.

Every time you sign up for a social network, be it Facebook, Twitter or Google+, you are faced with TOS (Terms of Service) that are naked rights grabs — making it a risky proposition for you to share your images.

And yet, everyone tells you that the only path to success in 2011 is to have your images on these sites.

What to do, you ask?

There’s No Free Lunch

Here are three basic facts photographers should know about social networks:

  1. There is still no such thing as a free lunch. If someone offers you something for free, it is only because they get some kind of benefit out of it. You can be sure they will find a way to monetize your images.
  2. If you use a service for free, you become the product. What do you think Facebook, Twitter or Google+ sell, anyway? It’s you. Your participation on their sites is what they sell to advertisers. That includes your pictures.
  3. In order to show the images you post on these sites to your friends and family, the social networks need the legal right to do so. Since there is no way for them to actually know who your friends, family or others are, you must submit to a blanket agreement stating that they can share them with everyone.

If you think you can sign up on a social network that will genuinely protect your intellectual property, you are sticking your big left toe in your eye. It is just never going to happen.

So, what to do? Deal with it.

Sharing Is Caring

It’s time to accept the fact that if you post your images on a social network, there is a 110 percent chance you will lose complete control of that image.

What are the repercussions of this, anyway?

If you post pictures of your 3-year-old nephew at your cousin’s barbeque party, you don’t have much to worry about. Besides a few polite “likes” from your relatives, not much will happen to that image, and it will soon be forgotten along with the other 10 million images uploaded to Facebook in a month.

However, if you post the only image of a plane crash landing on the Hudson River, well, get ready for it to be grabbed and spread around.

Here is the irony: Photographers or photo agencies post their images on social networks in order for them to be seen, appreciated and — dare we say it — shared.

The presumed intent of posting such images is for them to be viewed by a wealthy photo editor, who will either purchase them or hire you, right?

And since you do not yet know this hypothetical photo editor, the only way to reach this person is via other people who repost your images, right?

Do you expect all these people to ask you for permission and pay you a license fee every time they share your pictures? If so, you’re in dreamland.

Fortunately, ownership of an image doesn’t lie solely in managing its usage. It is also embedded in it. If you have a style, a talent, a point of view and an identity, your image will always speak your name, credit or no credit. People who see your images will want to track you down in order to find the talent behind those photographs.

If they don’t, well, that’s because you’ve failed as a photographer.

You’ve Got Three Options

Social networks’ TOS are not going to change because they are at the core of how they make money. Not by licensing your images (everyone knows there is no money there), but by using them to grow the network and sell more eyeballs to advertisers.

And for that, they need the right to do what they damn well like with your images. Forever.

Bottom line, you’ve got three choices as a photographer:

  1. Don’t upload your images
  2. Watermark your images
  3. Upload only images that you are ready to give away

Whatever option you choose, can we all please stop bitching and moaning about every new TOS like there is anything we can do about them?

Stop wasting your energy and time. Get back in the saddle and figure out how you can benefit from social networks without losing your shirt (and your sanity) in the process.

13 Responses to “Photographers, the Battle with Social Network Terms of Service Is Lost — Get Used To It”

  1. Actually the Terms of Service of social media sites change all the time. In iterative fashion from the companies themselves and through grassroots efforts to let organizations know they've pushed boundaries too far. The later is what happened with Facebook sometime ago. Stating that you're powerless to make a difference in how Terms of Servce are drafted/revised is non-productive and defeatist.

    If readers would like to educate themselves to what is changing and where in Terms of Service I recommend bookmarking (a site run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    I've written up how I evaluate Terms of Service for social media sites
    and the foundation of it all is making an educated and informed choice in how you choose to market your images. 10 years ago there was not an easy way to reach as many people as you can now for free* through social media. There is a huge upside and hyperbole aside photographers stand to benefit a great deal even if you're granting social media sites a license to syndicate your work (note that doesn't equate to giving away work).

    * yes nothing in this world is free and as more people educate themselves to how these businesses work they'll find greater comfort in using them.

    Where I stand social media users, not just photographers, have a great deal of power. You just have to know how to flex it as a community.

  2. I should correct my last paragraph...

    Where I stand social media users, not just photographers, have a great deal of power. You just have to know how to flex it as a community. When thousands of people air concerns and complaints that does not equate to "bitching and moaning". That is a movement seeking change and when a movement speaks loud enough and forcefully enough social media sites respond.

  3. There isn't anything in this article that hasn't been said 1,000 times before by other Doomsdayers. The world has gone digital. I don't understand why you guys keep fighting it. Social media does (for free) what traditional advertising (that costs a ton of money) could never do: put you and your work out there for potential millions to see.

    The only REAL choices here are:
    1) Participate and grow your business.
    2) Continue whining about the good old days and go broke.

  4. Why no mention of simply linking to self hosted photos?

  5. Millions of photographs get posted every day worldwide, and yet none of us are getting rich -- we're giving the store away, its that simple, and its done. Mr Hereld suggests this is more Doomsaying, but it's just the other side of a Pollyanna picture that his comments reflect.
    Local paper just laid off another photographer, so that side of the business is dead -- at $15 a picture it stopped being entertaining about 10 years ago.
    The local market is not financially strong, and Walmart/Picture People/etc are serious competitors at one end of the market. What used to be three pages of wedding photographs and engagements in the paper is now half a page.
    Demographics is as much against the wedding business as economics.
    Business as often as not around here uses staff camera (a staff member of the widget co who shoots the widget against the window) and chops it out with photoshop. They are unwilling to spend the money when the competition does its work in China and pays pennies on my dollar.
    I diversified my work, but I can see why others might not have, or might not have been able to. But don't let ANYONE claim to have the only REAL choices, because reality depends on where you are.

  6. @ Sean: You are correct, self linking is another option I did not mention. Thanks
    @ Anthony : You misunderstood the intent of the post. There is nothing Doomsayer in this post. It's all about accepting the rules of the game and playing with them.
    @ Jim: Even if a million photogrpahers get together and complain about Facebook's TOS, it is nothing compared to 600 million users who do not care. Furthermore, it's Facebook's platform, not yours. Why would they change ?

  7. @Sean
    I am with you, that's what I usually do and what I have always done, post links to contents hosted on my website.

  8. @Paul
    1. Social Media does not move for just photographers. In fact the average Joe uploads more photos than semi-pro or pro photographers and they're quite wary of privacy concerns.

    2. For the pros and semi-pros professional organizations are a great lobbying tool as are resources like EFF as I linked to. Precedent has shown that Facebook blinks on their programs and ToS as do other social media web sites when there is enough bad sentiment online not to mention bad press. It's happened multiple times. A simple Google should suffice to discover this.

    3. Assuming worst case scenario that social media sites don't care then photographers as always need to be smart enough to use the current system to their advantage while minimizing their risks. Either use links in their posts to their own blogs or use other sites.

    4. All that said the bottom line of your premise is flawed. They license your content for syndication. I've seen few Terms of Service for major sites that claim copyright to your work and those that do are quickly shunned. What they do license is what search engines might already gather from your web site with out you even accepting a ToS and such behavior is protected activity from prior legal challenges. Display and distribution of thumbnails, low resolution images and abbreviated content are of no risk to photographers who think ahead and of great benefit to those who know how to work the system to their advantage. This is true for search engines as it is for social media.

    5. It's in everyone's best interest to push companies for more equitable ToS. They do budge and it pays to be informed.

  9. Sites like Facebook and others can be some of the easiest and popular marketing tools we have access to. I've known more than one couple who have done a search on Facebook for local wedding photographers and I live in a town that time forgot of about 8000 people. Since I'm not a wedding photographer when they approached me I offered suggestions of people I knew close by who do great work. I know your article was not bashing these sites.

    I tend to post a lot of images on my profile. Without fear. I watermark the images and dumb them down to 72dpi so if printed they lose all their luster. I look at it like a car salesman who would ask you to pay $30k for a new car but not give you an opportunity to see the model let alone test drive it.

    By putting my work out there for people to see they get to see my particular style and decide it it's something that's for them. If it's not they move on, if it is I get an email asking about print sales.

    Maybe if I was a photographer who shot newsworthy events or famous people I would feel differently but I don't think my pictures of rusty old cars and falling down barns will ever be needed to tell a story on Hardcopy or TMZ.

  10. "If you have a style, a talent, a point of view and an identity, your image will always speak your name, credit or no credit. People who see your images will want to track you down in order to find the talent behind those photographs. If they don’t, well, that’s because you’ve failed as a photographer."

    Really...? Sorry, Paul, but this is total horsesh*t.

  11. @ Frank : If you so believe , then you re in the wrong business

  12. Some thoughts: "Hey, that's mine!" ---

  13. This post is about as real as it gets when it comes to social media. Thanks for posting.

Leave a Reply