Unsplash is (Still) Bad for Photography

Unsplash is (Still) Bad for Photography

According to their mythology, the creative services company Crew only had a few months of operating cash left. They needed to do something to keep the lights on, and with the leftover images from a commissioned photo shoot, they put up 10 images for anyone to use for free. That website, Unsplash, became a massive repository of free stock images, and more importantly, it became the top referral mechanism for new business for Crew. A side bet turned into the most potent marketing mechanism for the company and literally kept them in business.

Unsurprisingly, building a platform of free photos rubbed many professional photographers the wrong way. So much so, that co-founder Mikael Cho recently penned a defense of the business. I don’t believe that Cho has any malicious intent to harm the photographic industry, but I think the unplanned success of Unsplash has helped him to justify some untenable positions. Let me challenge some of Cho’s claims.

“New platforms don’t kill industries. They change the distribution.”

There have been inherent benefits to the direct-to-consumer platforms that have sprung from the Internet and app landscape. But platforms disproportionately benefit the platform owner, usually at the expense of content creators. 

In a previous life, I was a founding employee of hotjobs.com. We built a job board that moved jobs classifieds online. This shifted the revenue from newspapers to an internet company. It was devastating to the newspaper industry, but it also brought a host of new efficiencies. Jobs were now searchable. Resumes could be stored online. Applications could be made electronically.

Unsplash isn’t so much a new platform. It’s the same platform that has existed at Getty Images, Shutterstock and the like. Except you don’t have to pay for anything. The distribution channel didn’t change – they simply removed a barrier from the distribution, namely price.

“When two-time #1 New York Times best-selling author Tim Ferriss was blocked from distributing his book in Barnes & Noble, he uploaded excerpts from his book for free on BitTorrent to get distribution.”

Besides Ferris, Cho also mentions writer Leo Baubata and Chance the Rapper. In other words, his justification for “free” rests with outliers. In any system, outliers are, by definition, not representative of the average. Cho could build a compelling argument if he had statistics showing that the majority of photographers had increases in business after displaying images on Unsplash, but of course, this isn’t true. Nor does Unsplash have an incentive to track this information in the first place.

One of Cho’s other examples is designer Jeff Sheldon. He’s not a photographer by profession. He sells merchandise, and his oft-visited Unsplash profile features images of the products he’s selling. It’s a brilliant marketing move, but it’s also one that shows what the photography industry is up against. Photography isn’t his business, but it helps support his business – and he’s skilled enough to do it himself, which perhaps helps justify “free” in his mind.

“Before the internet, holding on to copyright for photos was more beneficial because the value in licensing a photo was high. The issue today is a licensed photo is losing its value…At the same time, the cost to produce a photo is going down…While professional photography gear is still expensive, mobile cameras are improving at a rate that will eventually put a professional-level camera in everyone’s pocket.”

If photos had no value, then others wouldn’t seek to use them. The cost of simply pushing the shutter button has gone down. But the cost of being in the right place and the right time and possessing the skill to take a great shot is the same as it ever has been. Yes, the value of a photo has decreased with digital photography, but the value of a good photo is not zero.

Unsplash likes to point out everyone from bloggers to Apple have used their images. It’s tragically ironic for Cho to boast about this. A photographer who spends $800 on an iPhone directly helps Apple’s bottom line, but she receives no such benefit when her image is used from Unsplash by Apple.

“Before the internet, holding on to copyright for photos was more beneficial because the value in licensing a photo was high.”

In the internet-enabled world, we’ve come to expect a frictionless system for commerce. To some, copyright is seen as a clunky, outmoded mechanism. But protecting a creator’s rights through copyright isn’t the problem. In many cases, it’s that licensing mechanisms haven’t been developed to work at internet speed. I know, I’ve been trying to receive a license to use a song from a copyright holder for 9 months.

For every high profile copyright infringement case you hear about, there are probably a dozen cases that are settled out of court. The US Copyright Code allows for statutory damages of $150,000 per image per willful infringement. The threat of penalty prevents business from stealing this form of intellectual property.

Giving up your copyright to a photo seems extreme but it’s this extreme level of giving that produces the unprecedented level of connection.”

Photographers submitting their images agree to allow Unsplash to extend a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual license to anyone for any use. The notion that giving away something for free creates an “unprecedented” level of connection is an incredibly dubious claim. A housekeeper at the last hotel I stayed at gave me a few extra cookies for free when I passed her in the hallway. It didn’t create an unprecedented connection. I didn’t even get her name.

“If someone needs a photo for a presentation that will only be seen by a few co-workers, they don’t have a budget for photography. If they can’t use a free photo for that, they are not hiring someone. And there is no relationship created. But by finding a photo on Unsplash, a relationship begins. When they need to hire a photographer for a shoot, they’re more likely to go back to the place that fulfills that need.”

This is such a load of crap that I don’t know where to begin. If the presentation is only going to be seen by a few people, then why does it need photography? To make it more interesting? To create visual interest? If so, then we’ve just proven the value of photography. Should an internal presentation require a $1000 photo budget? Of course not, but paid licensing mechanisms already exist for small usage at a modest price.

Further, Unsplash’s license doesn’t even require crediting the photographer. The platform can’t even stand behind the thin marketing exposure argument

Some other nitty gritty details to consider:

  • Their terms include  an indemnity clause for photographers. If Unsplash is sued for your photo (e.g. trademark infringement), you’re liable.
  • You agree to arbitration. Arbitration isn’t inherently bad, but if you’re sued by a big corporation in the court system, your only recourse with Unsplash is through arbitration.
  • Model released image have no guarantee. This is actually true with any platform. But established companies like Getty Images – whose revenue is built around image licensing – have a financial incentive to double check this detail. Caveat emptor.

Cho concludes with:

“Every industry evolves. Things will change. We can’t be resistant to change no matter how much today’s world benefits us. We face the same fact that every artist and business must face: what we offer today will eventually be obsolete. We can choose to be upset with this fact or understand it is inevitable and continue to adapt.”

This is so generic to the point of being worthless. Who can dispute that things will change and you can either adapt or die? Another aphorism to throw on a t-shirt. But it lacks any nuance of the real world.

Free isn’t the answer. It’s not sustainable. If you value any craft, then you need to pay for it. There are costs associated with any craft, and even a hobbyist needs to figure out how to justify a series of on-going expenses.

Unsplash created a platform. They didn’t force anyone to use it. Creatives who use Unsplash bear an enormous responsibility for assuming that the sharing economy will somehow magically work for photography when it hasn’t worked for any other creative field. 

But Unsplash does bear responsibility for arguing a position filled with unsubstantiated claims and conflations. As a fellow entrepreneur, I know how hard it is to build and stay in business. I don’t begrudge Cho’s success at all. But Cho’s support of the industry – especially insofar as professional photographers are concerned – is a mirage. Photography is a means to an end for his company. He has no incentive to declare that photography has any monetary value. The very success of his company depends on photography being worthless.

And that’s why Unsplash is bad for photography.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 31 comments for this article
  1. Aaron Dodson at 10:09 am

    The very success of his company [Unsplash] depends on photography being worthless? Now speaking of unsubstantiated claims and conflations…

    The rise of Unsplash is due to many things, but chief among them is the greater desire placed on the industry for quality photography. Second is the apathy (read lack of creativity) and entitlement displayed among some of the industry-leading stock sites.

    Now how do we monetize the industry desire for quality photography? That would make a great blog post. Another post on “How Free Photos Hurt Our Industry” is not really helpful.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 4:20 pm

      If they were charging for photography, do you think they would have attained even a modicum of the success they have reached? They would be undifferentiated from Shutterstock, etc.

      The notion that “quality” photography didn’t exist before Unsplash is fiction. Maybe you like their curation better than other sites. But then why not make curation the differentiator instead of “free”?

    • Cristian at 3:31 am

      “The rise of Unsplash is due to many things, but chief among them is the greater desire placed on the industry for quality photography”

      Well, that is really a weak argument of yours. There is a lot of quality to be found in any of the known stock agencies images and for sure much more diversity of styles than the desaturated “Instagram look” of Unsplash, but the difference is that to license those comes at a cost. That is not the case in Unsplash. As it was already pointed out if they begin charging a dime let’s see if they would be so succesful……

      This venture might make their owners press headlines as a new disruptor in the 2.0 tech/media business which they will know how to monetize. Photographers for sure won’t.

      I know my expenses when I engage in a shoot, and for me as most photographers the car stops if you don’t pump fuel in the tank. Where is the fuel in this “revolutionary company”

      • Nicolas at 3:05 pm

        The fuel is the same as social medial, including this blog. People like to discuss share, be recognized and so on. The amateur photographer out there out number pro photographer by a huge margin. Even if we are to count the one using a DSLR thisi is in the 50:1 or 100:1 ratio. If we count smartphone users this is what ? 10000:1 ? Even if only 10% of the users with DSLR and 1% of users with a smartphone can take decent photos and only 10% of theses agree to give it for free, that already a bigger workforce than all the profesionnals in the world.

  2. Tod Grubbs at 1:59 pm

    It is sad they have reduced photography to no value to prop up their company. shame on them! I hope the creatives that have their images there pull out and starve them of profits.

  3. Anne Mouse at 8:12 pm

    If hobbyists with cameras are a threat to an industry, what does that say about the industry? If volunteer Wikipedia editors help create a product that puts 30 million dollars into the pockets of employees of Wikipedia each year, how different is that? Should people speak out again unpaid editors? Have any of you complaining about this used Uber or Lyft rather than a taxi service or Amazon rather than a local store to save money? Have you used a free service that was “good enough” rather than a paid service that was better but that charged? If so, how can you complain about others wanting to save money where they can when they can?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 8:51 pm

      The Wikipedia example is a good one. I’m not sure how Uber/Lyft is a relevant analogy. You can contend that the driver’s are getting a raw end of the deal, but they are still being compensated in actual money.

    • Lauren Anderson at 1:31 am

      Very well said. If you want to pay for (hopefully better quality) stock photography, you can do that. Or simply use one for free from Unsplash that’s good enough. Your choice. Isn’t it great to have more choices? I think so.

  4. marty at 9:35 pm

    A photgrapher can just download images and resell to those who do not know about site? Plus if you want something original it probably won’t be there.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:38 pm

      Technically speaking, resale of the images is prohibited by the Terms of Use. I’m not sure how vigilant Unsplash is in policing this activity.

      • marty at 11:09 pm

        Yeah, i would think it would be hard to inforce. plus you can also alter the images. i think any photo with a recognizable person would be risky to use though.

    • Nicolas at 10:08 am

      Flickr let you choose the licence, by default is that all right are reserved to the initial author. But yes you can put creative common and flickr search engine would return such photos if one is interrested.

  5. Robert Collins at 11:21 pm

    ‘Free isn’t the answer. It’s not sustainable’

    With so many people happy to ‘share’ I think all Unsplash has done is take an on-going trend to its logical conclusion. It really doesnt matter if it is good or bad for photography.

    Still I think we will find that free is very sustainable here.

  6. Steve at 1:42 am

    “If you value any craft, then you need to pay for it”

    This blog itself is powered by software which was given away for free. WordPress, jQuery, Apache traffic server and probably a lot more were all used to make this blog happen. How much did you pay for these things?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 2:49 am

      It’s an interesting and valid argument that I need to contemplate a little more.

      But my visceral reaction is that I think the difference is nuanced. Many of the open source companies have built paid services around their software (e.g. WordPress hosting, consulting, Jetpack, etc), and support ecosystems (e.g. themes, plugins, etc) that provide a monetization mechanism for contributors within the ecosystem.

      Unsplash is trying to build a case for their platform (e.g. unprecedented generosity leads to unprecedented connections), many of which don’t pass my BS test. Not only are they taking content for free, they’re asking for photographers to indemnify them.
      They’ve hit a critical mass of supply and demand. Why not build a monetization layer like YouTube so that content creators have a financial reward/incentive?

      I think the answer is because it’s an unnecessary allocation of resource for THEIR business success. And because supporting photographers financially isn’t on their radar, this is why I think they are bad for photography – more specifically professional photographers.

      • Les Taylor at 4:32 pm

        I think that last paragraph hits the nail on the head for the difference here. In the case of say, Wikipedia: yes, people give away content for free, but (a) the content is not all-inclusive and (b) there was never a concern for profit on either side. The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit, and they get the majority of their income from donations. Additionally, Wikipedia at least requires attribution since it uses CC-BY-SA and GFDL, so if you were to quote text from Wikipedia without citation, that would be plagiarism and against their license, as far as I understand it. That’s not the case with Unsplash, who is by their own admission doing this as a business interest and using CC0. They are riding on the backs of their content creators to the fullest extent possible. The creators give everything away to boost a business from which they get nothing. It certainly appears Unsplash is intentionally taking advantage of people, under the guise that they will give them connections and exposure that will produce real income, without proof to support the claim. The similarities really break down as you consider these differences.

        Given that distinction, I’d say this isn’t just bad for photographers – it strikes me as immoral on the part of Unsplash. Of course, they’re unlikely to be concerned about this criticism. They probably like it in fact, because it’s free publicity. However, I hope photographers will grasp this criticism, because I agree the model can’t be good in the long term for anyone on the creator side, from the hobbyists to the professional. I have to believe the market will eventually correct this though, as more creators realize they are giving everything and getting nothing. Without incentive to create, the talent and diversity in content will go elsewhere or just get bored of creating.

      • Nicolas at 10:28 am

        @Allen Murabayashi, you want to reassure yourself toward free software but I am not sure you understand it.

        Open source doesn’t exist first and foremost as a business model. It exist as an ideal, a phylosophy of freedom, sharing and giving to humanity. This quite like what wikipedia editors do when adding articles or many people do when they share they photo or whatever else freely.

        Now, most business around the world use as much as they can of the open source software because it reduce cost for them, not caring one bit nof the philosophy behind it and quite a few business do provide support for such kind of software even through they are not the one that written it to begin with.

        A few companies have this as a business model and it work for them because making the thing readily available provide for great advertisement while on purpose they remove (or do not add) some key feature that many people will pay for. A good share of theses company also make it in the licence that any derivated work has to be open source too… Expect if you pay for the closed source licence. This is a bit similar to some photographers or creative that would not make association to pay but would ask payment for commercial use.

        In all cases, open source is also the work of many volunteers that do it in their free time and do not get anything more in return than the satisfaction of a work well done.

        Related to employement, there also the recent tendency that if you are a good developper, you have to prove yourself, and there nothing better than a github account with nice open source software of your own on it to show how great of a developper you are… Working on an existing open source product work well too and I know friend that have been hired because they worked freely on the open source code of some business company.

        For both photography and software, many people give without any intent to get anything back. For both photography and software some corporation will make some money out of that. For both photography and software, some will try to make you work for free and explain that may lend you to a nice job, maybe.

        The key difference is that in software industry, it doesn’t matter: there more demand for software engineer than there are available and so almost everybody get a well paid job.

        But it isn’t the one that contribute the most to the open source communities that end up getting the best jobs. There lot of student, amateurs and alike that do this activity completely separately of what they do for a living and they are not getting a job or being paid because they contrbute to open source software at all.

  7. Misko at 10:12 am

    Your criticism is misdirected.

    The site is only a conduit; if they didn’t do it, somebody else would. You can expect one person in some special position to refrain from acting against your interest, but you can not expect the same from everyone with interest in photography and ability to run a web-site.

    On the other hand urging those find pleasure in some activity without expectation of any monetary compensation to cease and desist is a lost cause.

  8. Lee Hawkins at 11:11 am

    Open source software is a poor analog for free licenses to photos…software always requires support, updates, changes, enhancements…and that can be billed. One custom software job can pay for many years to come.

    Photography needs no support—it doesn’t break, and most people don’t even know how to enhance it, nor do they care to. It may need updated, but if you’ve got a stream of more free stuff coming, then that will be free for the end user. It’s ridiculous to make the claim that giving photos away will lead to any work at all. Displaying them for free might work, but allowing use—yeah, no!

    As for Wikipedia—I don’t really have an answer on that. I realize that’s hurt encyclopedia makers, but what are the logistics of creating and updating those? It’s an industry that would be worth studying a bit, but I highly doubt that the publishers hired armies of creatives that approach even 1% of the size of the photography industry. A free encyclopedia which may or may not have been well-edited and researched is not analog to a quality photograph.

    • Nicolas at 10:38 am

      So what ? You say a photo in stock photography transform itself instantly into a nice website design, a great ad on a magazine or a nice poster on a wall ? Most of the time, if something of professional quality is made out of it, a professsional did make money on it, for sure.

      It may not be the initial photographer exactly like in open source it isn’t necessarily the geek or student in his basement that will make money by fixing a bug.

  9. C at 5:23 pm

    Lots of people want something for free
    Generally it doesn’t matter that free photos generally aren’t that great
    But people who want free photos don’t seem to care
    That says a lot about Unsplash’s “customers”

    Purchasing a license for a small photo from a stock agency for a presentation will probably cost pennies and will look much better than what this company offers

    Do not know any good photographers who give away their photos to this company
    And their terms should turn away people with any common sense
    Look at their website – nothing much there to say anything good about
    most of them look like crappy cell phone photos
    It is indeed a sad business model

  10. Michael Confer at 9:47 am

    Cho’s has been watching to much political news. What a bunch of hog-wash.

    “Giving up your copyright to a photo seems extreme but it’s this extreme level of giving that produces the unprecedented level of connection.”

    I have a connection with Apple and they have never given me anything. When my new $850 iPhone is given to me by Apple, I may change my mind.

    This idea is like free College Education.

    All the times my images have been used without permission has never created one connection for me! This platform only perpetuates the idea of free.

    Disney is pulling out of Netflix, Tesla will stream music against Apple, Photobucket now wants $400 a year to link an image to a third party site. Everything is so free on the internet.

    Shame on any Photographer who supports Unsplash!!!

  11. Nicolas at 2:58 pm

    “But the cost of being in the right place and the right time and possessing the skill to take a great shot is the same as it ever has been. Yes, the value of a photo has decreased with digital photography, but the value of a good photo is not zero.”

    The cost of getting a journalist or photographer to a place maybe didn’t go down that much. But who care? There no law that say you have to hire a journalist or a photographer. You can just get the photos of people that where there.

    And theses guy are many more than before and each take many more photo. If there any event hapening outside of a desert area, you’ll get thousand or more pictures of it. If the event is well known or if it a nice place. There likely hundred thousand photos of it, if not million with like thousand high quality available.

    Most of them from amateurs… That would be happy to give it to you for free or a very low price.

  12. Robbster at 12:07 am

    Anyone who creates for a living has to be sure their creative output is worth paying for to someone somewhere. All unsplash has done is create a mechanism for setting the bar on value, i.e., a creator of photographs who wishes to earn money from their photos must create something that a customer values more than the free alternatives. In the biggest scheme of things, it has always been thus.

    Now, I personally would not contribute to unsplash under the indemnity clause, poor risk reward balance in my view, but others should be and are free to do so. And I do continue to pay for professional content as needed in my work, including photography.

    Industries do indeed get damaged all the time by other industries, that is also the way of the world over longer periods of time. It’s called competition. For example, black smiths were not protected from the coming of mechanized manufacturing. Societies have laws and legal systems for setting the rules under which this competition takes place, hence things like copyright laws and the procedures to enforce them, but otherwise, there are no guarantees that professions that once existed will continue to exist.

    unsplash is a logical outcome of pervasive digital photography equipment combined with ubiquitous digital content distribution capability. That this would disrupt the current value equation for professional photography is expected. But it does not preclude anyone from taking photographs and attempting to make money from them.

    Net, I agree with the modified premise that unsplash is bad for (some professional) photography in the sense that some professional photographers may not be able to compete effectively with the free offering, but not that unsplash is bad for photography as a whole.

  13. Peter Gallagher at 4:36 pm

    I see your point, and I agree that his mystical justification for the growth and existence of unsplash is over-reaching. I don’t do a lot of creative work, but need to from time to time and so I have some unsplash photos on my hard drive. That said, I’ve rarely found that the image I want or need is found on unsplash.

    I think there are two forces that have driven the popularity of the site/service. First, everyone enjoys getting something for nothing. Second, good curation. On the opposite site the stock and micro-stock sites are the affordable alternative they used to be. iStock started out with .99 cent photos, but good luck finding one today. The continued popularity of blogs and the need to post images with your Facebook updates and Tweets drive the need for images but the slim budgets or no-budget marketing plans drive the popularity of free photo sites.

    Don’t let the popularity of unsplash get you pro photographers down. It will have its day in the sun and the industry will adjust. As the old saying goes…you get what you pay for.

  14. Jore Puusa at 4:49 am

    This is a question of morality…which is nonexistent in the modern world. If one can steal, he steals. Everybody steals in internet, especially pictures. And if they cannot steal – they get angry and use places like this Unsplash.
    So photography as a profession is dead. I am 65 years old photojournalist retired but listen to my frineds still in the industry. Editors take their own pictures and my mates are out of job.
    Those pictures taken by the editors look terrible, but nobody cares cause they come for free. Morality?
    Many sites tell amateurs how to shoot and make a terrible mistake.. When they learn a little they start to make pictures for free or very little cause they have another job to get money from —-morality?
    The pictures all over the world look terrible, they are much like kitschsunsets are needed more than real life. But as I said – nobody cares.
    Everybody who gives his pictures for free sits in the breakfast table of a pro and eats his cereals. ( and causes sorrow, depression and even suicides, but then who cares – this is the time of narcisim – me me me me me me me and me, I want it all and I want it now…for free )

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